The Success of the 'Grieving Mom'


If Democrats want to build on Cindy Sheehan's success, we must accept that last week's media storm was less about Cindy's demand to meet or her accusation against the President, than about her image as a "grieving mother."

Of the 122,000 pages that result from a Google search of grieving mom, almost all of them are stories about Cindy Sheehan. Clearly, "grieving mom" was the magic phrase at the heart Cindy Sheehan's success.

In fact, while many Democrats believe that Cindy Sheehan's protest has focused the nation's attention on the lies of the Bush White House, the reality is exactly the opposite.

Prior to the Cindy Sheehan story, the media was dividing its time between the "Memogate" story and the nomination of John Roberts to the Supreme Court. Despite the staggering complexity of Memogate, the more the media focused on the sinister and criminal acts of the White House political team, the more Americans saw the President as dishonest.

When Memogate ruled the headlines, the country's attention was focused not just on the President's lies, but on the cloud of deception that surrounded the White House. Similarly, even though John Robert's seemed like a squeaky clean nomination to the Supreme Court, the more the media discussed him, the more Americans saw the President as untruthful. When John Roberts topped the headlines, America's attention was drawn, slowly but surely, to what the President was hiding (by refusing to release documents about Roberts' past to Congress).

Rather than extending America's focus on Presidential lies, the meteoric rise of Cindy Sheehan to the top of the headlines shifted our attention to a "grieving mother." Curiously, this shift seems to have happened despite the fact that Sheehan's personal writings and public statements tried to intensify the national focus on the President's lies and refusal to meet with her.

So what is the bottom line of the Sheehan protest? What did the Sheehan week achieve?

In broad terms, the success of the "grieving mom" phrase indicates that Americans are now thinking about the War in Iraq through the frame of the family, rather than thinking about Iraq through the frame of "terrorism" or "ideology."

The implications of this shift from "terrorism" to "family" in the country's thinking about Iraq are profound. Not only does this shift forewarn a political tidal wave soon to break on the President's foreign policy, but also of a much deeper, tectonic shift in the strategy beneath all the recent gains in the Republican party.

The great success of Cindy Sheehan's protest, therefore, is no less than the moral authority for the Democratic Party to speak for the American family.

In other words, there are now two very clear claims on the American family at the heart of politics, and the claim by the anti-war Democrats has so much momentum that it has already forced every single Republican candidate running for office to rethink their strategies for the next few years.

At the heart of the Republican claim to speak for the family is a very narrow idea of marriage, and a reactionary nervousness about "the culture" as a cause for social problems in America. For the Republicans, the key to translating this claim into political gains has been a broad scale effort to use state legislators to strip homosexuals of the full rights and privileges of American citizenship.

At the heart of the Democratic claim to speak for the family is a broad and powerful idea that the war in Iraq is killing America's children for no apparent reason, and a growing anger than unless American soldiers leave Iraq, America's hard-working and honest communities will be destroyed forever. For the Democrats, the track record for translating this claim into political gains has been very short -- so far only one Ohio candidate has applied this claim to political gains.

One need only think back a few months to see a Democratic party that was ripping out its hair to figure out how to stem the electoral bleeding caused by the Republican so-called "family values" debate. In two successive elections, Republicans made incredible gains telling people that they were the party of "family values," while the Democrats tried as hard as they could to say more than "We are, too."

But now, as a result of the incredible courage and endurance of one woman, the Democratic Party has a solid, tested strategy for speaking about the family in a way that draws Americans into the values and ideals of the Democratic Party.

At this point, it would seem that the main obstacle to turning Cindy Sheehan's achievements into real political gains would be the circle of overpaid and out-of-touch consultants that suffocate the potential and idealism of the Democrats' high-profile national candidates.

While Cindy Sheehan has lead America's families in an emotional and meaningful discussion, the consultants are still trying to distract voters into thinking that our potential Presidential candidates are the true voice of "staying the course" in Iraq. We can only hope that somebody with real influence in Washington -- and the ability to fire these consultants who leading our candidates astray -- has the same courage as Cindy Sheehan.

In the meantime, Democrats working at the grassroots level -- in the blogs and elsewhere -- would benefit from taking a minute to reflect on the real gains that we have made in the past weeks. Bringing President Bush's lies to light is important work and it must continue apace. But the Democratic Party has been searching for some time, now, to find a way to reclaim the moral authority to speak on behalf of American families. As a result of Cindy Sheehan's protest, that moral authority is now with us.

Let's hold tight and not let go.

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