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Faith in Public LIVE: XPatriated Texan on Spending Time Wisely and Developing an Ideological Core (Part 7)

August 3, 2006, 2:19 pm | By thurman

Dear Amy and David,

Don’t worry about the optimism, Amy. We all need plenty of it! Actually, I’m fairly optimistic as well, I guess I just look for boulders on the highway too much.

I realize that I need to clarify something. I don’t think that Casey was able to demand equal time because of his pro-life credentials. That is pure political strategy and simply using the law as it was intended. I still think, however, that his reception by the group has more to do with his pro-life stance than anything else. They may respect him for standing up to his party on abortion and to conservatives on gay marriage, but that’s because he manages to stand up to different people on the two issues. If he was also pro-choice, then he’d have left a much different feeling in their bellies when he walked away. He still could have demanded, and probably received, fair and equal time. The result would have been different, though. In fact, I doubt he’d have decided it was worth his time.

The most precious resource in any campaign is time. The PPN has maybe three or four issues about which they want to hear a candidate speak. If he’s against them on all four, there’s no chance he’ll convince a voter to vote for him. From a campaign perspective, that’s a waste of time. That’s why Democrats have, for so long, eschewed many religious groups. It isn’t going to help them and they might say something that really gets the religious people lathered up. It’s better to let a sleeping dog lie.

In Casey’s case, his pro-life position allows him to make the speech something besides a waste of time. There may be a few voters there that actually vote for him. Regardless, their attacks on him, as Amy points out, are going to be blunted. So while it isn’t his pro-life credentials that get him the time from a legal perspective, it is his pro-life credentials that make it worth his trouble.

The problem that this highlights is that there is no similar left-wing religious organization from which a pro-choice, pro-gay marriage candidate could get an equal political boost. That’s an organizational problem. Pretty much everyone on the left understands that we are decades behind the right organizationally. I believe that is also tied to the lack of an ideological basis (in political terms) and a strong theological basis (in religious terms) for collective action. Until we find an answer for the charge that we “stand for nothing and fall for everything” we aren’t going to change that. People don’t generally get out of bed early to vote or take time away from their family to attend meetings dedicated to “good government” – but if you make it about “liberty” or “doing what is right for your kids”, then suddenly they are interested.

That is currently where the Prevention First strategy is. It’s good policy. As Amy points out, it will do more for cutting abortions than overturning Roe. But, while there is an ideological core to that policy, it is not well articulated. Therefore Senator Reid’s speech has some rhetorical highlights, but no really binding ideas that will draw people out of their shells. Because it lacks a well-crafted ideological core, the only soundbites are policy-heavy and can be spun so hard it makes your head hurt. “Better access to birth control pills” suddenly becomes “Your daughter will be given birth control by her PE teacher and you’ll never know it.”

I want to stress again that it isn’t solely the job of our politicians to make create this ideological core. In fact, due in large part to their need to appeal to a larger group, they can’t. It’s our job as liberal activists to create a rhetorical base that our leaders can tie into in order to make those sound bites. “That isn’t conservative,” was a ludicrous statement twenty years ago. Today, everyone knows what it means – or at least they think they do. Either way, the core is there and it can be used to spin off sound bites in every direction. Since it’s my idea to bell the cat, I’ll take a short stab at it – with the understanding that it is likely to make a lot of people uncomfortable. But I think I’ll do it at my site rather than further sidetracking the conversation here.

Instead, I’ll end today by encouraging the party chairs who are reaching out to groups that may have been less than friendly in the past. You can’t steer a parked car, and it’s better to try and steer some of the politically active in our direction than it is to build an entirely new field of politically active persons. I don’t think that all of these groups are as conservative as the PPN. Rather, they are more “Republican leaning” groups that head in that direction because Democrats simply haven’t tried to engage them. Rectifying that oversight should put a number of races into play that wouldn’t be otherwise. If nothing else, it should help us engage a wider electorate and that should help us be more respectful of differences and perhaps – dare we hope? – bring a more civil discourse to our politics.

All the Best,

Thurman

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Faith in Public LIVE: XPatriated Texan on Casey, Kaine, and Deviation (Part 5)

August 2, 2006, 9:30 am | By thurman

Dear Amy and David,

Looks like it’s my turn again. You guys are going to make it hard for me to keep it short and sweet!

To turn first towards the Casey strategy, I think there is a consensus that it isn’t going to help Casey make inroads with the hard-core Republicans (I disagree that this group is conservative, but that’s another topic). I teach my students that there is generally a 30% core of voters who will back either a candidate or a party no matter what. The contest is for the other 40% of voters – the swing voters. What Casey did was neutralize an issue by demanding equal time with a special interest group. It works for him because the make up of the swing group fits nicely into his own constituency – the pro-life crowd. It wouldn’t work for me, one of those non-pro-life, non-pro-choice Christian Democrats. To the extent that is true, it is repeatable only by someone with Casey’s pro-life credentials.

But you are right to emphasize that this is not the only field upon which politics is played. By embracing his religion, Casey has insulated himself against the “Godless liberal” demogoguery that has been so prevalent in recent years. That is definitely repeatable – and it should be repeated by any candidate who wants a serious shot at winning in the Deep South or through the Great Plains states (the dark red states). An abortion-moderate (I’m afraid that’s the best term I have right now) could still insulate their campaign from that pre-packaged slander by speaking openly to people of faith about their faith. John Kerry made a step towards that (bungling it by linking his “faith without works is dead” speech to closely to campaign rhetoric) and I think Kaine improved upon it. Casey is one more step along that path.

But here’s the rub: For an abortion-moderate Christian Democrat to speak openly about faith in action, they are going to have to draw upon a theology that allows for abortion. If Kerry had done that, rather than use the pulpit to slap at the President, he might not have had to stumble through an answer of how he can oppose abortion personally but endorse it politically. Developing this theology has to be the job of those of us on the Faithful Left rather than individual candidates.

If one believes abortion is murder, then how can one justify allowing it to be legal without legalizing other forms of murder? If you don’t believe it is murder, then what is it in theological terms? What is our moral and legal responsibility to the unborn, the pregnant woman, and the father (who is too often forgotten about in this discussion)? Many of us operate from a sort of gut-level theology without exploring these questions and wrestling them to submission. Because we do, the public discussion is the poorer and there is no collective understanding for a candidate to call upon in a campaign.

I agree that Kaine also reaped the benefit of an authentic persona. I disagree, however, with the comparison to President Bush. President Bush uses his authenticity to push for a positive message – in the sense that he is positively doing something. Kaine used it as a negative message – he wasn’t going to change the law. In a sense, Kaine’s authenticity wasn’t challenged because no one expects the Virginia legislature to pass a bill outlawing capital punishment. If put in a position of choosing between following his theology and signing a bill to outlaw capital punishment and obeying the “law of the land” by vetoing it, we still have no indication which way Kaine would move. I think that’s a significant difference. If the issue had been more prevalent and subject to change, I think his authenticity would have hurt him as he would have had to struggle publicly with that question. So I understand the point both of you make on this, but I think a different campaign with a different candidate in a different state would have had very different results – in other words, it doesn’t represent a precedent so much as it does a deviation.

In the interest of time, I’ll try to summarize my point. Kaine in Virginia and Casey in Pennsylvania both represent deviations from what we are accustomed to seeing. Both of them have used this deviation to their benefit – and there is some lesson to be learned from their doing so. The point Amy makes of being the first Democrat to speak to an evangelical group is an excellent example. The lesson there, I’d say, is not to surrender any part of the electorate. Take your message to every group you can in a language they understand. If they don’t like you, they will at least respect that you took the effort to do so. That respect may or may not pay off in electoral terms, but the race is long and the more ears that are bent partially to your message, the more votes are potentially swinging for grabs.

It might be worth thinking about how we make these successful deviations into precedents.

All the best,

Thurman

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Faith in Public LIVE: XPatriated Texan Responds (Part 2)

July 31, 2006, 3:53 pm | By thurman

Hi Amy and David,

Thank you, Amy, for getting the ball rolling and many thanks to Faith in Public Life for launching this initiative. It’s an honor to be invited to participate. I think Amy has hit upon a wonderful campaign to use as an example, as well as bringing up an issue of no small importance.

The first part is purely political strategy. Casey has been able to neutralize what might have been a pivotal support group for Santorum simply by engaging them directly. But it is also necessary to understand why he has been able to do so.

Santorum’s political history is built upon a foundation of opposing abortion. He pulls in a 100% rating from the National Right to Life Committee. In other words, he’s never seen an anti-abortion bill he didn’t like. When you see groups like the Pennsylvania Pastors Network organizing to help push his agenda, they are simply disguising their attempts to push anti-abortion legislation.

Casey, as a pro-life Democrat, had a fairly easy job ahead of him in neutralizing this support. He simply had to go and deliver his pro-life message to a pro-life crowd. It’s very difficult for a pro-life action group to get traction for one candidate over another when they are both delivering the same message. So, while Casey’s move to address the PPN is politically bold on one hand, it is neither risky nor bold on the other.

The real problem is that Casey’s example isn’t repeatable by any candidate who is less pro-life than he is. While Casey’s election (which looks to be a sure thing at this point) will give Democrats an extra vote on many issues, this is one issue upon which it can’t be counted. As someone who is interested in building a partisan Democratic majority, I fully endorse Casey’s actions and his candidacy. As a husband and father who supports abortion rights as being inalienable to women’s liberty, I have to look at it with a good deal of hesitancy.

That brings us to the real issue, which Amy ponders as whether or not a Catholic must be pro-life in order to run in a red state. It’s the fear behind Ruth Marcus asking, “What does it profit a party to gain a demographic but lose its soul?” Bluntly put, it’s the fear that Casey – or Democrats like him – might actually be the nail in the coffin of women’s rights. What good would it do to install a Democratic majority that severely limits a woman’s right to have an abortion? More to the point, to what extent is it necessary for Democrats to give up a pro-choice position in order to win a majority?

To answer that question, you have to understand a bit about Pennsylvania politics. Traditionally, this is the home of the Democrat. But the nationalization of the culture war finished off the erosion of the Democratic base that started with rust-belt industries moving to southern states or out of the country entirely. Arlen Specter, the long-time pro-choice Republican Senator, manage to eek out a primary win over pro-life Pat Toomey two years ago by only 17,000 votes. If Casey enjoys a natural popularity here, it’s because he is well-known and well-liked. A significant reason for that is that he is pro-life. In other words, the demographics have shifted in favor of a pro-life candidate over time. Drop a pro-choice candidate in the race instead of Casey and it’s a much tighter race.

In Casey’s example, there’s no cognitive dissonance – no stance that will make a voter think – because his electoral stances align with his personal ones. Mr. Casey is a pro-life Catholic. Therefore, he supports pro-life positions. There will be no awkward Kerry-ish, “I think it’s immoral but I support it,” answers from this candidate. He presents a public face that flows seamlessly from one end to the other on the issue. Since his personal views support his political views which, in turn, support the broad demographics of the area, the issue is effectively neutralized.

The case of Tim Kaine, Jr in Virginia is much different. As a Catholic, Mr. Kaine opposed the death penalty. But in order to be a good “law and order” candidate, he distanced himself from that position. His answer was simply that he was not elected to impose his faith upon the state – so if he had to, he would sign a death warrant because that was the law. While this played well in Virginia, which has a long history of politicians standing apart from their faith, it might not have played well elsewhere. It also has to be said that the capital punishment debate was entirely fabricated as part of the campaign. There was no larger debate on the issue at hand during the election. This is certainly not true for abortion.

So you have two examples. Mr. Casey offers an example of where his faith leads to a political stance that is embraced by a large portion of the electorate. He benefits from embracing it. Mr Kaine, on the other hand, had to distance himself from his natural faith position to get to a political stance that was favorable to the electorate. What neither examples illuminates is how a Democrat in Nebraska or Kansas or South Dakota would fare on such issues.

Such an answer might come from Oklahoma Democratic Governor Brad Henry. Both Henry and his wife are long-time Southern Baptists (they taught Sunday School and he served as a Deacon at First Baptist of Shawnee) and it would be easy to try to knee-jerk his position on abortion from that information. In his first term (he appears set to easily win a second term) he signed legislation that might be called “anti-choice” by some – requiring parental notification for minors receiving an abortion, for example. Yet by doing so, he has also neutralized a huge and potentially explosive campaign issue. He has preserved access for women who are legally able to determine their medical care and upheld the legal responsibility of a parent to a child. In doing so, he has retained the support of almost two-thirds of Republicans in the state.

I think the answer is clear. Allowing Democratic politicians to enjoy some position beyond the extreme “defend all abortion at all costs in all places” will make their races competitive, and as a result they will win some of them. That means a Democratic majority is possible to the extent that candidates do not fit into the pigeon-holes that many campaigns come pre-determined to exploit. The trio of Kaine, Casey, and Henry show three very different ways to do it: by creating political distance from one’s faith views, by showing a seamless flow from personal to political views, and by creating a moderate path between the two extremes. Contrary to Ruth Marcus’s fears, this is not a Democratic Party without a soul, but a Democratic Party with a soul strong enough to face an issue in all its messy parts. It’s a soul that is ready to deal as necessary with the shifting majority to protect minority rights as best it can.

The good news, as well, is that Amy’s fear that a Catholic must be a “good Catholic” and be pro-life may be proven incorrect. As the ability of Democratic candidates to speak of their faith and how it effects their politics opens, I think we can expect an even greater number of candidates to find new stances that aren’t currently being represented. Some of these may be more pro-life than others, but the ability to come to the podium as a genuine and sincere human being will create in-roads for Democrats among voters who would otherwise reject the pro-choice label. That is the pathway to building a Democratic majority that, while it may not be hard-core enough for some, will still represent the interests of their constituents in an honest and open manner. From where I stand, that’s a good thing.

Looking forward to your reply. All the best,

Thurman

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