Real Moral Values

They're hot. They're everywhere. People can't get enough of them. I'm talking about the new conventional wisdom fodder: "moral values." And it seems like everyone with a (D) after his or her name is suddenly seeing the moral values light.

The problem with this tidal wave of values converts is twofold. First, it's based on a media-generated myth about what voters cared most about this election – a myth based on a poorly worded exit poll question that tried to turn "moral values" into a concrete issue like health care or the war in Iraq, which they clearly are not.

Even Karl Rove, the "architect" of the president's evangelical strategy says that security was this year's most galvanizing issue. It far surpassed red state concerns that America is heading to Gay Hell in a handbasket. So, fear of gay couples saying "I do" didn't carry George Bush back into the White House; fear of Osama saying "Take two" did.

Let's crunch some numbers. In the 11 states with gay marriage ballot initiatives, Bush's share of the popular vote increased 2.6 percent from his 2000 totals. In states with no gay marriage initiative he went up 2.9 percent. And as for Republicans ruling rural America, exit polls found that Bush was up 13 percent in big cities, while Kerry was down 11 percent from Al Gore's totals. On the other hand, in towns with populations between 10,000 and 50,000, Bush went down nine percent, while Kerry gained 10 percent over Gore. So Kerry's problem wasn't small-town America seeing red over gay marriage.

Indeed, the second problem with this newly-congealed conventional wisdom is the assumption that "moral values" is code for gay marriage, partial-birth abortion, and Janet Jackson's right boob (a gland whose exposure William Safire this week called "the social, political event of the past year").

But, ironically, however erroneously we got to it, the moral values debate is precisely the one Democrats need to be having right now. Because if they don't capture the moral high ground back from the Republicans, they'll never be able to capture the hearts and votes of Red America.

If the Democratic Party is not about bringing focus and urgency to the creation of a more fair, just – and, yes, moral – society, it might as well cease to exist. FDR gave expression to the moral principle that should be animating Democrats when he said that "the test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little." Isn't this the exact opposite of the immoral credo that animates Bush Republicans?

And although it hardly got any ink compared to the passage of the gay marriage initiatives, voters in Florida and Nevada – red states both – approved initiatives calling for big hikes in the minimum wage. This was incontrovertibly a moral values initiative because it's a moral disgrace that low-wage workers who work full time are not paid enough to lift their families out of poverty. Real "values voters" know this, and there are enough of them out there that you don't have to sell your soul to get elected.

America's Founding Fathers understood the connection between statecraft and soulcraft. They were not political men engaged in a spiritual enterprise. They were deeply spiritual men engaged in a political enterprise. After all, the premise that "all men are created equal" – which Lincoln called "the father of all moral principle" – is true and self-evident only in spiritual terms. We are clearly not self-evidently equal by any other criteria, including brains, looks, or talent.

The Democrats need to realize that the values debate is not about triangulating on gay marriage – it's about passion and principles. And that's what distinguishes an inspiring political vision from a laundry list of policies and four-point plans.

Take Bobby Kennedy's passionate devotion to finding solutions to the problems of "the excluded." In 1963, when he was attorney general, he called the entire cabinet into his office at the Justice Department, locked the door, and made them stay there for four hours discussing how to best address the crisis of poverty in America. And, during his run for the White House, he embarked on a tour of this country's most impoverished areas. The resulting television pictures of hungry children in his arms shocked the conscience of the nation.

When was the last time a politician shocked us for reasons other than being caught with his pants down or his hand in the public cookie jar?

By bringing soul into American politics, Kennedy was able to galvanize voters in Kansas no less than in California. He didn't retreat from a values-based campaign; he seized it.

But Democrats can't get to the promised land by treating moral values as just another tactic their pollsters tell them they need to pursue, as something "we" need to figure out so we can convince "them" to vote for us. That's like an aging 60s rocker reluctantly trying on a white three-piece suit after "Saturday Night Fever" turned disco into a national phenomenon. Stayin' alive, indeed.

The Democrats continue to have the numbers on their side – 1.2 million jobs lost, 36 million people living in poverty, 45 million with no health insurance – but somewhere along the way they lost the music, the conviction needed to transform data into narratives and economic issues into moral ones. They don't need a slogan, they need an anthem – so let them sing out "economic issues are moral values."

And if they are not sure how this is done, they can go back and read Barack Obama's speech at the Democratic convention. He spoke of "faith" and "miracles" and "the belief in things not seen" and the "awesome God" people worship in the blue states.

"Alongside our famous individualism," he said, "there's another ingredient in the American saga: a belief that we are connected as one people. If there's a child on the south side of Chicago who can't read, that matters to me, even if it's not my child. If there's a senior citizen somewhere who can't pay for her prescription and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it's not my grandmother. It's that fundamental belief – I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper – that makes this country work. It's what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family. 'E pluribus unum.' Out of many, one."

This is perhaps the most spiritual political statement uttered this entire campaign. It should be the starting point for the rebranding of the Democratic Party. For it is only with such real "moral values," from which spring clear political priorities, that you can counter Bush's divisive religiosity – and win back America's value voters.

One word of caution to all Democratic presidential wannabes: don't hop on the moral values bandwagon just so you don't miss out on the Next Big Thing in political trends. Because therein lies more poll-tested defeat and disappointment. And haven't we had enough of that?


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