Ellen Goodman

Our Next President Will Transform the Supreme Court

BOSTON -- I really hate to bring it up. We already have two branches of our national government in full-scale meltdown. The president looks like a guy pleading before the parole board for early release. The Congress makes "dysfunctional" sound like a compliment.

But there is the third branch also in dire need of a rescue operation. Oyez, oyez, or should I say oy vey. I give you the Supreme Court.

When the court opens Monday, it will look like an oasis of calm in the capital. There are no neon-bright cases on the docket this term. Indeed, my personal favorite is the case of the "fleeting expletives," a suit brought against -- and made for -- Fox News, asking whether the FCC ban on dirty words covers the occasional Paris Hilton outburst.

But even the court's routine cases will wrestle with personal injury suits, job discrimination, sexual harassment and the environment. The not-so-fleeting fact is that the court ultimately touches every life. And so I come reluctantly to my quadrennial and usually futile plea to consider the court when you get into the presidential voting booth.

Most Americans have some guilty, civics-class understanding that the Supreme Court hangs in the electoral balance. More than 85 percent tell pollsters that the court is either very or somewhat important in how they cast their vote for president. But the court rarely rises to the top of the voting issues.

In support of my plea, take this pop quiz. What are the three longest lasting legacies of the Gerald Ford administration -- and the Betty Ford Clinic doesn't count. The answer? John Paul Stevens, John Paul Stevens, John Paul Stevens -- 88 years old and still on the bench. (OK, Dick Cheney was Ford's chief of staff, but let's not go there.)

George W. Bush's shadow will hover over the country long after he's gone, in the shape of John Roberts and Samuel Alito. In just three years and counting, the Roberts court has chilled desegregation efforts, allowed the first abortion ban with no exception for a woman's health, made it harder to claim employment discrimination, and easier to mix church and state.

In the cold world of actuarial tables, the next president is certain to have one choice and probably more. Candidates for retirement are Stevens, the 75-year-old Ruth Ginsburg and the homesick David Souter. That's three of the four moderate and liberal justices on a bench that has made an art of 5-4 decisions.

You do the math. If Obama is elected, the court will stay pretty much the way it is. If McCain is elected, Katie bar the door.

McCain, who plays a maverick on TV, promised the court to the right wing. He told the women of "The View": "I want people who interpret the Constitution of the United States the way our founding fathers envisioned for them to do so." This prompted Whoopi Goldberg to ask if she should worry about being returned to slavery.

Of course, slavery is not up for review and not every case comes with an ideological amicus brief. But you can count on one more Scalia, one more Alito, one more Roberts to limit or strike down the federal power for things such as cleaning the air and safeguarding workers. And need I remind you, McCain is out to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Pro-choice groups have been crying wolf for so long that it's hard to believe that the wolf is actually at the door. Or at least the border of South Dakota. There a full-tilt abortion ban on the November ballot with high-hurdle exceptions only for rape, incest and the life of a woman is pointed directly at Roe and targeted to arrive at the Supreme Court in time to greet a new justice. If what happens in South Dakota doesn't stay in South Dakota, a woman's right will depend on whether she has enough gas to drive to the next, or the next, or the next state.

Finally, if you want to know which candidate just plain values the Supreme Court, try checking out their first appointments, the vice presidents. Joe Biden has spent a career on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Sarah Palin went blank when asked to talk about a single court case beside Roe v. Wade.

Ah yes, remember when only a few Cassandras warned that subprime mortgages and credit derivatives would affect everyday American life? We'll be paying for the next Supreme Court even longer. That's two branches of government down, folks, and one to go.

(c) 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

The Do-It-Yourself Economy

I finally drew the line at a dinner invitation. My husband wanted to try a much-touted restaurant that presents you with a platter of raw foods and a hot pot. The prospect of this adventure in dining didn't exactly thrill me. If I want to cook my own food, I answered rather testily, I'll eat at home.

Until then, I had drifted along with the do-it-yourself economy. I bused my own lunch trays. I booked my own movie tickets. I checked myself in at hotel kiosks. I even succumbed when an upscale seafood restaurant expected me to swipe my credit card through a handheld computer as if I were in a supermarket.

But maybe it was the election-year rants about the offshoring of American jobs -- ranging from those of steelworkers to those of computer programmers -- that finally got me. The outsourcing of work to other countries has produced endless ire. But what about the outsourcing of work to thee and me?

For every task shipped abroad by a corporation, isn't there another one sloughed off onto that domestic loser, the consumer? For every job that's going to a low-wage economy, isn't there another going into our very own no-wage economy?

I'm not just talking about do-it-yourself gas pumping, which is by now so routine that the memory of an actual person washing your windshield has receded into the mists of AARP nostalgia. Back when gas cost $2 a gallon, self-service was offered at a discount. Today, gas is more than $4, and, in most parts of the country, full service -- a retronym if there ever was one -- is available only at a premium.

What's happening on land is happening in the air. We are now expected to book our own itinerary, print our boarding passes and do everything at the airport except pat ourselves down for liquids.

In this self-service economy, we also serve (ourselves) by having intimate and endless conversations with voice-recognition machines simply to refill a prescription drug or check our bank balance. We are expected to interact with "labor-saving technology" without realizing that it's labor-transferring technology. The job has not been "saved"; it's been taken out of the paid sector, where employees have a nasty habit of expecting salaries, and put into the unpaid sector, where suckers 'r' us.

I am tempted to say that customer service has gone the way of the house call, but that reminds me that even medicine has been outsourced to patients who buy do-it-yourself kits to test and track everything from HIV to blood pressure. The Internet ad for a do-it-yourself eye surgery kit may be, I pray, a hoax. But in an era when every operation short of brain surgery is done on an outpatient basis, nursing care has already been outsourced to family members whose entire medical training consists of TiVo-ing "Grey's Anatomy."

The axis of this evil isn't really globalization, it's privatization. Consider all the major jobs that have now become part of our personal portfolio. We've become our own computer geeks as help lines become self-help lines. We've become our own pension planners and financial analysts managing our 401(k)s. We are even expected to be health care analysts, determining which star in the galaxy of drug prescription plans covers the ever-changing cast of pills in our medicine cabinet.

All of this is framed in the language of free choice. As opposed to, say, free time.

An MIT economist assures me cheerily that many Americans are willing to accept less service for lower cost. In a society built on the value of self-reliance, I am told, we may even feel virtuous when we put together our own bookcase or install our own hard drive.

But I have yet to find an economist who has figured out the human cost of "lower cost" or tallied up the transfer of labor from companies to customers. I've yet to find a consumer who has added, subtracted or multiplied the amount of time we are now spending on the second shift of life management.

Remember back when women were asking "Can We Have It All?" The answer turned out to be that we could have it all only if we could do it all ... and all by ourselves. Now men and women have won equal opportunity in the do-it-all-by-yourself world. We have officially become our own nonprofit centers.

Welcome to the self-service economy where we are never without work to be done. Let's celebrate by dining out together. Bring your carrot peeler.

Ellen Goodman's e-mail address is ellengoodman(at)globe.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

Is a Clinton-Obama Ticket in Our Future?

BOSTON -- Maybe I forgot to get my vaccination against the false-hope flu. Maybe the change mantra has finally overwhelmed my immune system. Or maybe it's just the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. hovering over this week.

But I have a dream. Or at least a dream ticket. Why not the two front-runners on one ballot?

Yes, I am aware that I must immediately hand over my press card to the professional cynic police. I also have to apologize to the two New Hampshire teachers who suggested this wistfully only to hear me snap back, "Not gonna happen."

But the Democrats have just recovered from a panic attack over the possibility that a primary fight between Hillary and Barack over race and gender will leave both in the dirt. At the kiss-and-make-up debate in Nevada, a reassuring Obama said that "there's much more that we hold in common than what separates us." Clinton said that "we're all family in the Democratic Party." Exhale deeply.

"This is a moment worthy of celebration," said Clinton last week. "Many of our parents and our grandparents -- and, I dare say, probably many of us -- never thought they would see the day when an African-American and a woman were competing for the presidency of the United States."

Well, I'll see your "change" and raise you one. Our parents and our grandparents really never expected to see an African-American and a woman on the same ticket.

I will now pause for the requisite paragraphs explaining why this is a nutty idea. The two-fer could be two-for-defeat, double the trouble, double the negatives. As 'hope-less' strategists will tell you, there are plenty of folks who don't want to see a white woman and black man dance together, let alone run for the top jobs together.

The common wisdom says that we need a balanced ticket. But these are both senators, one from New York and one from Illinois. Moreover, the Democratic Party already has racial and gender gaps. Want chasms?

But what if "there's no such thing as false hopes"? -- thank you Obama. What if "what we need is somebody who can deliver change"? -- thank you Clinton.

What if a new, improved idea of a balanced ticket goes beyond demography and geography? What if balance rests on different personal and political strengths?

By now we've heard the front-runners make their own case repeatedly. Obama is cast as the candidate of inspiration. Hillary wears the mantle of experience. Tuesday night, Hillary described her idea of a president as "the chief executive officer." Obama described his greatest strength as "the ability to bring people together from different perspectives." He's fired up and she's ready to go.

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin also blushingly confesses to being seduced by the possibility that the sum of this ticket would be greater than its parts. She compares it to other historic partnerships between those who motivated change and those who implemented it, including, yes, Martin Luther King Jr. and Lyndon Baines Johnson. "King's marching and sit-ins and his oratory created a climate that Congress had to respond to," says the biographer, but LBJ's political skills wrestled the legislation through Congress.

"In this case, we wouldn't just be combining a black and a woman, but the two narratives of the campaign: inspiration and experience, both of which are needed for change," she adds. "It would be a bold move but a great one."

Up to now, you will notice, I haven't said who would be at the top of the ticket. Which is where my little attack of idealism may stumble.

In America, as Hillary noted in the debate, we put "the head of state and the head of government together in one person." Frankly, I think of Hillary as prime minister and Obama as royal philosopher. If Hillary wins, it's easier to imagine the younger candidate taking the second spot. If Obama wins, it's harder to see her settling for Number One Observatory Circle after eight years in the White House. But at the same time, she has had a whole lot of experience partnering with a president.

This game plan depends, I am fully aware, on Super Tuesday. It also depends on whether the country is, in fact, eager for something different, in a "post-polarization" frame of mind.

But Obama said, "I run so that a year from today there's a chance that the world will look at America differently and that America will look at itself differently." And Clinton told Tyra Banks which reality show she'd choose: "I think it would have to be 'Dancing with the Stars,' especially if I could have one of those really good partners."

Against the low, incessant, chant for change, do I hear a T-E-A-M? Or only a dream?

White House Has Gall to Credit Itself for Stem Cell Breakthrough

I have a friend who dedicated her first book to her husband "without whom this would never have been possible." Years later, when the husband was gone, she used to fantasize about tweaking her dedication: "To my husband without whom this book would have been done five years earlier."

I thought of her as the Bush administration claimed credit for a bona fide breakthrough in biology. Two groups of scientists in Wisconsin and Japan have found a way to reprogram ordinary skin cells so they behave like embryonic stem cells. So it may become unnecessary to use embryos in this cutting-edge research.

When the good news was announced, the White House had the gall -- an Oval Office alternative for chutzpah -- to claim the victory as theirs. "This is very much in accord with the president's vision from the get-go," said policy adviser Karl Zinsmeister. Without the slightest hint of irony, he suggested that their stalwart opposition actually fueled the scientists' success. Next thing you know the president will nominate himself for the Nobel Prize in medicine.

Let us pause and review Stem Cells 101. What scientists are trying to do is take an ordinary cell from the human body and persuade it to become, say, a heart muscle cell, or a brain cell, or a liver cell, to fix whatever ails us.

The researchers did not study embryonic stem cells because they wanted to run a recycling center for leftovers from in vitro fertilization clinics. Nor did they have a passion for wedge issues. But the embryo could do what they were still unable to do: cause ordinary body cells to act like stem cells.

This breakthrough was not the president's "vision from the get-go" or any other go. First of all, the Bush administration bet on the wrong horse -- adult stem cells. Second, the researchers couldn't have gotten to step two without step one. They needed human embryos to learn how to do this without human embryos. They'll still need embryos for some time, as both a benchmark and a way to judge whether stem cells from skin are effective and safe.

Not only did the "vision" impede the science, the administration also slowed it by starving funding and scaring off researchers. So James Thomson, the biologist whose work forms the bookends of this research, offers this, um, dedication: "My feeling is that the political controversy set the field back four or five years."

Now he and other scientists are muting that political controversy. Pro-life Republicans have every reason to breathe a sigh of relief. The idea that a leftover frozen embryo had greater moral status than your aunt with diabetes didn't wash with the general public. It was a losing battle for conservatives who are used to directing the culture wars. It even split pro-life politicians. Sen. Orrin Hatch ended up arguing with the absolutists: "People who are pro-life are also pro-life for existing life."

Democrats, on the other hand, may breathe a sigh of regret. The stem cell controversy gave pro-choicers an iconic image of their enemy: someone who put the embryo über alles. It gave progressives a poster girl in Nancy Reagan -- and a poster boy in Michael J. Fox. Stem cells were to the left what partial-birth abortion was to the right, a way to frame a touchy issue and look like the reasonable center.

The issues that range around the stem cell debate will still be with us and with politicians. There remain more than 400,000 frozen embryos languishing in IVF clinics. As for the relative worth of an embryo and an "existing life"? There are likely to be ballot measures next year to give a fertilized egg the legal status of a human being.

Indeed, the sleeper issue of this campaign may be the one found in a YouTube video called "Libertyville Abortion Demonstration." There, pro-life protesters at an abortion clinic are asked what punishment should be meted out to a woman who has an abortion if it becomes illegal. Their answers: "I don't know." "I've never really thought about it." Candidates won't get away so easily.

Nevertheless, this is a moment when anyone who prefers a cure to a battle cry should celebrate. There is still a long way from reprogramming a skin cell to treating a disease. But we've come to think of scientists as people racing ahead of us, leaving behind huge moral potholes. This time, science may resolve the quandaries it created.

So this success is dedicated to the scientists who freed themselves from the clutches of politics. But not to the president, without whom, well, this too would have been done years earlier.

Polygamy and Forced Sex in the Name of God

BOSTON -- I'm glad I didn't fall for the latest Internet hoax. MarryOurDaughter.com? Hello? Did the millions who clicked onto this site actually think there were parents out there putting a bridal price on the head of their 15-year-old Ashley ($37,500) or 16-year-old Kristin ($49,995)?

The hoax proved to be the brainchild of John Ordover, a Brooklyn man practicing his viral marketing skills. It was Ordover who hyped this site as an "introduction service assisting those following the biblical tradition of arranging marriages for their daughters."

But before you deep-six your most paranoid fantasy about the arranged marriages of young girls, let us turn to reality. In a courtroom in St. George, Utah, there is a defendant named Warren Jeffs who surely regards himself as a celestial matchmaker.

Jeffs is the autocrat and reigning prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), a polygamous community of about 10,000 that regards itself as the one true Mormon faith. It survives much to the embarrassment of mainstream Mormons, who gave up polygamy in 1890, and much to the horror of the state.

Jeffs is either deeply creepy or downright evil depending on how you label religious leaders who consider themselves the voice of God and marry multiple women, including 30 of their late father's youngest widows. He is infamous, among other things, for kicking hundreds of teenage boys out of his community and matching hundreds of their sisters into plural marriages. For those hooked on "Big Love," Jeffs makes Alby Grant look appealing.

But the man is not on trial for being a polygamist, let alone a creep. As the judge and prosecutor told the jury, this case is not about polygamy. Jeffs is being tried as an accessory to rape. He's charged with intentionally aiding the sexual assault of a 14-year-old girl by her husband.

To hear the alleged victim, known only as Jane Doe, describe her marriage is to be as deeply saddened as the jury was. After resisting Jeffs' order to marry her 19-year-old first cousin, she found herself at the altar, head hanging, forcing out the words, "OK, I do." After refusing sex, she went back to Jeffs for counsel and was told to "repent," to "do your duty," and be "obedient." And so the girl who didn't know what sex was or where children came from says she was forced to submit to her husband.

Did this teenager make her own choice? We forget how the rules governing consent have changed. Conflicting state laws now navigate between a girl's sexual maturity and her vulnerability. In many states, including Utah, a girl can marry with her parents' permission at a younger age than she can have sex.

But this case raises a different question about consent. How much power did the religious leader wield over the 14-year-old? If you refused to marry the chosen husband, Doe testified, you would "lose your chance at salvation." How could she refuse to obey the husband who was "my ticket into heaven"?

No, polygamy is not on trial. But its history is interwoven with questions of consent. Opponents to plural marriage in the 19th century included women's rights advocates who equated polygamy with slavery. No mature woman, they believed, would voluntarily enslave herself.

In the late 20th century, the idea arose that consenting adults could make their own sexual arrangements from serial monogamy to, well, polygamy. Indeed, at this trial, FLDS women described themselves as "empowered." But the view of polygamy as just another lifestyle choice has been countered by the growing evidence of communities rife with abuse.

Doe's forced marriage falls easily into the moral category of child abuse. So I sympathize with the desire to get Warren Jeffs. Get Al Capone for tax evasion. Get O.J. for chasing down his memorabilia. But I'm troubled by the charge that Jeffs is an accessory to felony rape. University of Utah law professor Daniel Medwed calls it "an ill-fitting suit draped over this case." I'm afraid he's right.

The argument is that Jeffs told Doe to submit or be damned. It will be hard enough to prove that he was explicit in encouraging rape by her husband. For that matter, how can you convict a man as an accessory to rape when the alleged rapist himself -- the husband -- hasn't been charged? On the stand, he denied forcing her.

This case highlights what it's like to be a girl imprisoned in the FLDS world. Have no tolerance for a community, even a religious one, that so estranges its young from shared values, including liberty.

But this charge doesn't fit Warren Jeffs' moral trespasses. It's too much. And way, way, too little.

(c) 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

The Fastest Man on No Legs

BOSTON -- As someone who lives just a few hundred paces from the Boston Marathon course, I've cheered my share of athletes. This year, it was Masazumi Soejima at the head of the pack, propelling his wheelchair across a rainy 26 miles in 1 hour, 29 minutes and 16 seconds. It took Robert Cheruiyot an extra 44 minutes and 57 seconds to come in first on foot.

I take nothing away from the athleticism and grit of Soejima. But it goes without saying that he didn't "beat" Cheruiyot. Those who compete on foot and those who compete with wheels are categorically different. And succeed in different categories.

I make this point because of the controversy surrounding a 20-year-old South African named Oscar Pistorius. This racing phenom recently won the 100- and 200-meter races in an international competition for disabled athletes. He won on a pair of J-shaped carbon fiber blades known as Cheetahs.

Pistorius calls himself "the fastest man on no legs." He was born with defects in his feet and his lower legs were amputated when he was 11 months old. Nevertheless, he says, "I don't see myself as disabled." He wants to be allowed to race for the Olympic gold on his own two Cheetahs.

This is one of those stories tailor-made for the Olympic coverage: A great athlete overcomes enormous adversity to pursue his dream! But it's also one of the other stories now stalking sports: Exactly what kind of technology, training or performance enhancements should we applaud? And what kind should we reject?

This conversation seems to be as common as box scores and doping scandals. On the baseball field, Barry Bonds is creeping up on Hank Aaron's home run record. But there is no joy in Mudville. Bonds' achievement is tainted by the belief that he used steroids to beef up his body and his record.

In cycling, where doping is the bane of the Tour de France, Floyd Landis' inspiring win turned sour with lab reports of testosterone shots. He is still fighting for his crown and his reputation.

Those who oppose Pistorius compare his Cheetahs to "techno-doping." But it is also true that technology has been used to enhance performance since the first runner put on a shoe and this duffer put Big Bertha in her golf bag.

Training has reached a level of technical sophistication unheard of when Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile. Athletes train in wind tunnels and travel to high altitudes. But the use of altitude tents to simulate that "high" has been decried as violating the "spirit of the sport."

And what are we to make of Lasik surgery that gave the near-sighted Tiger Woods his 20/15 vision and four straight championships right afterward? Is better-than-perfect vision a kind of enhancement like doping or a correction like contact lenses?

Some years ago, I questioned a beauty pageant in which the contestants had been surgically altered and implanted. They didn't owe their beauty to their maker but, rather, to their remaker.

Similar questions about the remanufacture of athletes, says ethicist Tom Murray, "force us to ask what is the point of sport. Whatever we think is meaningful and beautiful about sports has to do with the ways we admire natural talents and hard work and dedication."

But there are other things we don't admire. "I can climb the mountains of the Tour de France faster than all the other competitors," quips Murray. "All I need is a motor."

Today, we replace hips and knees with titanium. We replace thyroids with pills. NBC is remaking the "Bionic Woman" series for a new run, and ethicists are debating the possibility of real bionic athletes. Michael Sandel, author of "The Case Against Perfection," warns that "part of what we admire about great athletes is that we are able to see ourselves in their human achievements." Who would applaud the bionic Olympiad?

As for Pistorius and prostheses? So far, the International Association of Athletics Federations has prohibited him from the Olympics. The final decision won't come till August.

But what makes his challenge so compelling is not just his extraordinary courage and talent. His prostheses both enable a disabled man and offer an athlete high-tech equipment. They land somewhere between a sophisticated running shoe and a motor.

I don't think that Cheetahs are cheating. And I am uncomfortable with the talk of cyborgs and transhumans that surrounds this case. These stories will get harder, not easier, over the next years.

But as a fan of Masazumi Soejima, I don't think that racing on a separate track is an insult. It's still the right place for the "fastest man on no legs."

The First Openly Godless Member of Congress

He's not exactly a profile in courage. After all, Pete Stark is 75 and has represented his liberal district near San Francisco for more than 30 years. It's unlikely that he'll be tarred and feathered or sent packing for admitting that he's, well, a godless politician.

Nevertheless, Stark recently broke a political taboo. He became the first member of Congress to say publicly that he doesn't believe in "a supreme being." The next most powerful politician to identify himself as a "non-theist" in response to a question by the Secular Coalition for America was a school board president in Berkeley.

Some described Stark's admission as "coming out of the closet." Others rued the fact that God was not on his side. A spokesman for the Concerned Women for America unabashedly bashed him, saying that "a Christian worldview is proper for a politician to have."

Not surprisingly, Stark has no ambitions for the presidency. In one of those endless polls surveying whether we are "ready for" a black, a woman, a Jew or others to be president, only 14 percent of Americans believe we're ready for an atheist. What Stark has done, however, is open a fresh chapter in this year's hefty book on presidential politics and religion.

Until the Stark moment, what captured media attention has been the subtle and not-so-subtle focus on Mitt Romney and his Mormon faith. Will his religion hurt his chances for the Republican nomination? How much?

I've been especially struck by this because I was a young reporter in Detroit when Romney's father, George, was governor of Michigan. I barely heard a peep about George Romney's faith, even though at the time his church still banned blacks from the priesthood. I didn't even know George's grandfather had five wives. In 1967, this Romney's campaign to be the moderate, anti-war Republican president foundered after he admitted being "brainwashed" about the Vietnam War. It had nothing to do with faith.

What happened between 1967 and 2007? How did the matter of someone's religion get back into the dead center of the public square, not to mention the cable shows and the blogosphere?

The first Romney came to political prominence after the postwar growth of ecumenical suburbs and after Jack Kennedy's famous speech: "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute -- where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote."

"I do not speak for my church on public matters -- and the church does not speak for me," said Kennedy. JFK's pivotal speech and his election seemed to take religion off the public table.

Fast forward to the rise of the Moral Majority. In 1976 Jerry Falwell offered his very un-JFK opinion: "The idea that religion and politics don't mix was invented by the devil to keep Christians from running their own country." Over the following generation, the religious right bonded to the Republican Party. It also grabbed the idea that traditional religion was the only way to frame the moral dimensions of a public issue.

So now we hear strategists calculating Mitt Romney's chances as The Mormon Candidate. One reporter even asked Romney the Mormon version of the "boxers or briefs" question: Does he wear temple garments, the special underwear of his church? Romney himself reassured a meeting of evangelical leaders that he too believes in the virgin birth, the crucifixion and resurrection. Are these on the religious right's ecclesiastical checklist for president?

In the past several years, many Americans have tried to decouple "religious" from "right." Prominent evangelicals are trying to expand the conversation about values from gay marriage to the environment, from abortion to poverty. At the same time, there are progressives as well as conservatives who connect their religious beliefs to public policy. And Democrats too are urged to wear their religion on their sleeves and in their speeches.

In 1967 and in 2007, the values of many -- maybe most -- Americans feel rooted in religion. As a society we need to have conversations about right and wrong. But in this increasingly pluralistic country we also need to uphold the idea that morals are not the exclusive property of any one religion. More controversially, we need to welcome the idea that values are not the exclusive property of religion itself.

Pete Stark denies that it takes courage to become the first admitted non-theist in the House. "What is courageous," he adds, "is to stand up in Congress and say, 'Let's tax the rich and give money to poor kids."' There are many ways to be a true believer.

Searching for the Undecided

BOSTON – This is no place to go hunting for the endangered species of the 2004 election. A real, live, undecided voter is even harder to find than a self-confessed pessimist in this resolutely upbeat Democratic convention.

Nevertheless, the delegates, candidates and party honchos all have indecision on their minds. The good behavior, the careful image-and-message honing has been directed to that incredibly shrinking segment of the population who are uncertain, or – imagine! – just beginning to pay attention.

Ask any pollster within range of the Fleet Center – they are here in numbers just short of bloggers – and they will tell you that the public is more polarized, more locked down than the highways out of Boston. It may be July on Boston Harbor, but it's October in terms of the electorate. As few as 5 percent of voters are undecided.

As any speechwriter worth his software knows, somewhere between 58 percent and 70 percent of these undecided voters are women. These are not the fabled soccer moms. Nor are they just security moms. And they are definitely not Sex and the City singles, to reprise another of the handles that have been used to simplify the undefinable group of women who haven't made up their minds.

At one event, Marie Wilson, who heads a project to get these women to vote, called them "How-am-I-going-to-make-it-today-moms." Fit that on a bumper sticker.

Most of them are between 25 and 40. Two-thirds haven't been to college. Wilson parses their dubiousness about voting this way: "I don't have time, I don't think I know enough and I don't know if it matters." Karen White of EMILY's List, the political action group, describes the undecideds and their larger cohort, the swing voters, as women "who spend 23 hours a day focused on domestic and family issues." That leaves just a few minutes for politics.

It is of course refreshing to see the women who buy their coffee at Dunkin' Donuts and not Starbucks being wooed this earnestly. And who among us isn't charmed when women are the ones having trouble making a commitment?

But in some ways these women should be an easy match for the Democrats. They put issues like health care at the top of their domestic dance card. In answer to a pivotal question, they very strongly disapprove of the direction the country is going. Perhaps most startling, in a recent EMILY's List poll, women swing voters were asked to say something, anything, positive about the country and only 39 percent could come up with an answer.

It isn't just that women are having trouble making up their pretty little minds about what political hat to wear. They aren't wishy-washy. They have strong – but conflicted – feelings.

As Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster puts it, they are torn between national security interests and domestic interests. And on security issues, they are equally torn. They are disproportionately opposed to the war in Iraq and disproportionately worried about safety at home.

When the undecideds talk about Iraq, they talk about loss of life and the possibility of a draft and the money going to rebuild Iraqi schools rather than their own. But at the same time the undecideds are very certain that there is real danger in the world. Indeed as recently as February, 42 percent of women – 47 percent of all mothers – said they worry that they or someone in their families could be victims of terrorism.

It wasn't an accident that Bill Clinton included one line of scripture in his speech: Be Not Afraid. Bush plays this fear like a color-coded terrorism alert. Kerry hasn't yet convinced these women that he can protect the country.

So many are in the unenviable pickle of hating the war and thinking the commander in chief is a strong leader. Agreeing with Kerry on everything from health care to Iraq, but unsure he is strong enough to protect them from terrorists.

Not long ago, the peripatetic Republican pollster Frank Luntz said that a Republican candidate has to show "empathy" for swing women voters by understanding their big problem: the time crunch. When women hear that, Luntz said, they'll listen to the rest of message. It's the empathy, stupid.

For John Kerry, it's the safety, stupid. If he can assure undecided women that he can protect the country, they'll listen to the rest.

Want to know why the word strong has been attached to every evening schedule, every speech, every slogan, every duckling in the Public Garden? The woman who is having trouble making a commitment is looking for a guy who is a strong ... but not silent.


Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.