The "Values" Conundrum
As we all know, the "lesson" of the 2004 election, apparently, is that rural and evangelical Christian voters in the south and midwest voted for President Bush based on his perceived "moral values," and that we have to recalibrate the Democratic message in the "language" that these folks can relate to. Now is not the time to form hardened opinions as to which approaches can and can't work--we're only in the process of bouncing ideas off each other. However, let me explain why I think this strategy is dubious, if not counterproductive.
First, I think this strategy repeats the same mistakes the DLC made in the 1990s. As a result of the Reagan Democrats' flight, the DLC decided that, to woo back white working class men, Democrats had to emphasis "law and order," and de-emphasize hot button social issues and interest group politics. And in the short term, this succeeded, with Bill Clinton's 1992 victory. However, over the long term, the Democrats failed to make any substantial leeway in this voting bloc, and even worse, many key elements in the party base became disenchanted.
For example, take a look at the decidedly unenthusiastic tone of Kos’ post on this topic—he’s willing to put up with “God talk,” but he’ll be holding his nose in the process. Let me emphasis that I'm not criticizing Kos-- it's just that his squemishness about pursuing this strategy is indicative of what most of us feel. This isn't because we don't have values, obviously, but simply because, as secular liberals, we feel uncomfortable speaking this language. This is why the "values" strategy reminds me of the DLC. Just as we gritted our teeth through Sister Souljah, welfare reform, and "the end of big government is over," we'll be doing the same thing this time around. Granted, this may pay short-term dividends (e.g. Clinton in '92, possibly Edwards in '08), but in the long run it's not sustainable--it's simply not who we are.
As with the "New Democrat" strategy, the fundamental drawback to this "values" approach is that it is played on Republican turf, which is to our inherent disadvantage. As this Kos diarist astutely points out "[w]hen Kerry tried to talk values during the campaign he talked about being an altar boy. That's great, but all it does is reinforce that, at best, Democrat values are a pale imitation of genuine, Republican values, because that is how the debate is framed." It's not enough to recast heath care and equality as "moral values," as some are proposing. In the end, we're still stuck in the mindset of convincing these groups to vote Democratic based on pocketbook issues, and this simply isn't working.
Finally, I think this "moral values" approach misunderstands the desires of our target audience. Evangelical voters aren’t stupid—no matter how much the Democrats sweet talk them, they’ll remain skeptical as long as the Democratic candidate (whether it be Edwards or Obama) is pro-choice/gay rights. Jim Henley made this exact point:
Conservative, values-minded Christians aren't looking for validation. They're looking for specific policy outcomes that their strongly-held beliefs entail - among them, the prohibition of abortion and the marginalization and if possible elimination of homosexuality. They are not empty urns waiting to be filled with liberal policies dissolved in honeyed words about faith.
Exactly. I'll talk about how we deal with the evangelical vote this weekend. For now, let me just say that if 4 million of them really did stay at home in 2000 because of news about Bush's DUI arrest, this points to a HUGE weakness in the Republican base, one that Democrats can exploit...provided that they are willing to roll up their sleeves and jump into the pigpen that Republicans have been wallowing in for the past forty years.
UPDATE: Here's a perfect example of the danger inherent in the "values" approach:
"Looking for a way to pick up swing voters in the Red States, former President Bill Clinton, in a phone call with Kerry, urged the Senator to back local bans on gay marriage. Kerry respectfully listened, then told his aides, 'I'm not going to ever do that.'" Being more Clintonesque on gay marriage may have won Kerry some swing votes, but that comes with a price, and one Kerry wasn't willing to pay.
Thank you, Senator.