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No More "Enemy Turf": Progressives Are Learning How Not to Concede

 
 
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 A perenially important political challenge that’s been associated with the Washington Monthly for years (and that also happens to be one of my own favorite crusades) is an effort to convince progressives not to concede important segments of the U.S. population to the opposition on grounds that they represent some sort of inherent “enemy turf.” Yes, certain demographic categories may be “lost” to conservatives if you insist on a winner-takes-all definition, and no, aggressively pursuing support among such voters isn’t worth it if it involves abandoning key principles or essentially adopting the opposition’s point of view. But reducing the margin of defeat on “hostile ground” is often achievable simply by paying attention and not wilfully repelling voters, and in the end a vote is a vote whether it comes from a segment of the electorate that progressives are “winning” or “losing.”

There are growing signs that progressives in general, and the Obama campaign in particular, are “getting it.”

Back in 2003, the Monthly published a much-discussed article by Amy Sullivan entitled “Do Democrats Have a Prayer?” that argued the Donkey Party was unnecessarily sacrificing moderate-to-liberal religious voters—and even some nonreligious voters impressed by the moral clarity of faith-grounded statements of principle—by refusing to engage with conservatives claiming a monopoly on the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Over this last weekend the self-same Sullivan penned an op-ed in the Washington Post noting how aggressively Barack Obama is challenging the assumptions of conservatives and secular MSM observers alike that the only religious perspective on same-sex marriage is one of horror and hostility:

Obama cited several reasons for his support for gay marriage, including conversations with U.S. troops, his family and his staff. But his assertion that his views on same-sex marriage come from — not despite — his Christian faith marks a shift in U.S. politics. Democratic politicians now unabashedly cite religion when making their case, and GOP leaders sometimes find themselves in the unusual position of justifying — rather than merely stating — their religious claims.

Sullivan cites the recent difficulties encountered by Paul Ryan in reconciling his supposedly Catholic worldview with his admiration for Ayn Rand and his disdain for any concept of “social justice.” He wouldn’t have had to bother squaring these circles if he was not being challenged by religiously-inspired progressives critics, who are in turn keeping pressure on the Catholic bishops to object to Ryan’s more outrageous claims that you exhibit love for the poor by denying them food stamps.

After years of pretending that the culture wars were a matter of religious views lined up against secular beliefs, politicians are recognizing what average Americans knew all along. A majority of Americans now believe that there is more than one way to get to heaven, pollsters report. Our political discussions finally reflect that there’s also more than one answer to the question: “What would Jesus do?”

Pretty simple, but it’s taken a good while for that two-front challenge to the conservative monopoly on religious expression to emerge.

On a different front, in 2007 the Monthly published a colloquoy in 2007 of advice from recent military veterans on how Democrats could improve their performance among “military voters”—another constituency often conceded to the GOP as “enemy turf.”

Again, the advice to compete rather than to surrender seems to have sunk in, at least with the Obama campaign, according to a WaPo article over the weekend by Amy Gardner:

Republicans have long defined themselves in part on their hawkish stance on national security issues and their popularity among the military and veterans. But the makeup of the nation’s armed forces is changing, and Obama hopes to win over veterans by appealing to the same subgroups that propelled him to victory in 2008: women, minorities and young people.

“There’s a different face of the American veteran now,” said Lauren Zapf, 30, a Navy veteran who served in the Persian Gulf and who spoke recently at a gathering in Northern Virginia for Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Timothy M. Kaine. “The president’s stance on social policies, his work with military families, what he was doing with policy in both Iraq and Afghanistan — I appreciate that.”

Progress has already been made since 2004, when Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, who tried to make his autobiography a self-evident case for his interest in the “military vote,” succumbed to “swift-boating.”

Obama lost veterans nationally in 2008, as Democrats usually do. But he won those under age 60, a better result than Sen. John F. Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran, achieved four years earlier. Today, Obama is making a significant push in battleground states with large military installations, such as North Carolina and Colorado.

Aside from recognizing the increasing diversity of the military and of military families, the Obama campaign is taking advantage of Republican mistakes, not just in terms of the GOP’s horrific record on undertaking and mismanaging “wars of choice,” but its frequent indifference to the needs of veterans, notes Gardner:

The [Obama] campaign believes that veterans, meanwhile, offer the president a chance to outperform his numbers from four years ago — and perhaps even make up for some of the ground he could lose elsewhere.

One of Obama’s central advantages is that he no longer faces a decorated war hero, Sen. John McCain, who as the Republican nominee in 2008 characterized Obama as a political neophyte with no foreign policy experience. Across the nation, McCain won veterans by a 10-point margin— one of the few voting groups he claimed handily.

Now Romney is the foreign policy novice. And the Obama team is doing all it can to draw a contrast between the two men’s records. Advisers point to Romney’s suggestion, on Veterans Day, that Veterans Affairs health-care programs be privatized. They note that his 59-point economic proposal doesn’t mention veterans once. And they make fun of him for calling Russia the nation’s greatest “geopolitical foe.”

Mitt Romney won’t be able to tout his own non-existent military service, and he won’t be landing any jets on an aircraft carrier, either. But that might not matter if the Obama campaign were not so confident about its ability to make a positive case for the superior appeal of Democrats to the values and interests of “military voters.”

A vote’s a vote; reducing unnecessary losses on “enemy turf” has enormous political value; and progressives need not concede, explicitly or (by silence or evasion) implicitly, religious or military voters. It’s good to see these simple lessons are being taken to heart.

Washington Monthly / By Ed Kilgore

Posted at May 14, 2012, 5:10am