LIVING ON THE WEDGE

Here’s CNN’s headline on the latest GOP response to not being so popular right now:

GOP hones its core agenda: Flag burning, gay marriage, abortion top Republicans’ Senate plan

This will certainly provide fodder for those left of the center who like to argue that the problem with Republicans is that they focus on intangible “wedge issues” rather than material issues that actually affect people. It’s an argument that has some popularity not only with centrist Dems but with a fair number farther to the left too. I don’t think it’s a good one. Thing is, these so-called wedge issues affect real people in ways that are all too real – and often are economic as well. The problem with Republicans isn’t that they focus too much on so-called “social issues.” The problem with Republicans is that they are wrong. The problem with Republicans is that they want to reverse social progress. Democrats need to expand the public understanding of what is an issue of values. But they also have to make the case better on the issues that are already commonly identified that way (Thomas Frank is right to argue that taking stronger populist stands on the economic issues could help to sap right-wing “culture war” politics of their ostensibly anti-elitist appeal).

All that said, one can hold out hope that the image of Bill Frist scheduling hearings on how to amend the first ammendment to ban flag burning will do some damage to his party’s credibility as responsible stewards of the Congress.

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Over at The New Republic, Hillary Clinton is winning accolades from Michelle Cottle and Andrew Sullivan for her new rhetoric on abortion last week. Like Clinton herself, they’re each partially right.

Cottle takes on Jim Wallis of Sojourners and others for trying to win the “moral values” debate for Democrats by shifting it onto economic turf. She’s right to argue that responding to the heartfelt opposition of all too many working class Republicans to the Democrats’ stances on abortion and other so-called “social issues” with a sleight-of-hand is both insulting and ineffective. The Democrats do indeed need to win the values debate on the “social turf.” But, contra Cottle, a winning strategy for the Democrats will also depend on broadening the popular conception of moral politics to include the economic exploitation and persistent poverty of millions of Americans. Cottle should know better than to take on face value the idea that so-called “values voters” simply could care less about children without healthcare. She completely overlooks the extent to which, in the absence of a real discussion by Democrats of America’s savage inequalities. Republicans have been able to successfully repackage “social issues” as class grievances against liberal elites and activist judges. It’s not surprising that those who want Democrats to change the topic and trounce the GOP on economic moral issues and those who want them to change the message and trounce the GOP on social moral issues each see the other standing in the way of progress. But a winning strategy will have to do both.

Sullivan, like Cottle, writes with the stated intention of helping Democrats win on abortion. And parts of the approach for which he credits Clinton are indeed good moves. Certainly, Democratic politicians and activists should recognize the difficulty and sadness with which many women approach the choice to have an abortion (Sullivan, like most pundits, drastically exaggerates the extent to which this is not already the case). And absolutely, Democratic politicians and activists should frame access to all forms of contraception in all situations as “the surest way to prevent” abortions (nothing so new here either). As for demonstrating respect for one’s opponents, I don’t think many are arguing that the Democrats should demonstrate intentional disrespect for those who disagree on abortion.

But what those on both sides of this debate want, more than respect, is to win. And while Sullivan insists (in a strange turn of phrase) that “Democrats can still be and almost certainly should be for the right to legal abortion,” readers can be excused for coming away with a mixed message. Sullivan follows a long line of pundits and reporters in conflating changes in discourse on abortion with changes in policy. Seemingly intentional ambiguity radiates from Sullivan’s insistence that

One reason that John Kerry had such a hard time reaching people who have moral qualms about abortion was his record: an almost relentless defense of abortion rights – even for third trimester unborn children – with no emphasis on the moral costs to all of us of such a callous disregard of human dignity. You cannot have such a record and then hope to convince others that you care about the sanctity of life.

One could read such a graph to mean that Kerry could have won the abortion debate if only he were on record mourning the “moral costs.” But it’s not clear why one would. A more intuitive reading would be: To win over “pro-life” voters, Democrats should cast more “pro-life” votes. Otherwise, how are we to understand Sullivan’s criticism of Kerry for being “almost relentless” in supporting the right to choose. Sullivan isn’t so much offering ideas on how to win the debate over abortion as urging a partial surrender.

More specifically, Sullivan lauds Clinton’s support for abstinence-only education as good politics, despite the preponderance of evidence that diverting dollars from sex ed to abstinence ed will lead to more unprotected sex and therefore more abortions. And Sullivan urges Democrats to back candidates like Bob Casey in Democratic primaries specifically because they oppose the party’s position on abortion rights. He pushes this plan – that Democrats essentially should sell their position by working against candidates who support it – as a corrective to a mythical “fatwa” against such politicians in the Democratic party. Those who believe such a fatwa exists may still be under the mistaken impression that Casey’s father was denied the chance the speak at the convention nominating Bill Clinton because he opposed abortion and not because Casey had announced he would be voting against Bill Clinton. Either that, or they’re willing to suggest with a straight face, as Sullivan does, that for the GOP to have a pro-choice second-in-command at the RNC while the Democratic party has an anti-choice Senate Minority Leader demonstrates that “the Republicans are more obviously tolerant of dissent than Democrats.”

Finally, Sullivan wants Democrats to tone down the rhetoric about women’s rights and instead frame abortion as killing and abortion rights as a way to avert more gruesome killing. Instead of “reproductive rights,” Sullivan argues, Democrats should talk about a decision through which “one soul is destroyed and another wounded.” But while talking about abortion as a “sad, even tragic choice” for the mother may help make the case, arguing that it’s a tragedy for “unborn children” won’t. Either a woman is a constitutionally-protected person with a fetus inside of her, or a fetus is a constitutionally-protected person with a womb attached. If Democrats frame abortion as killing, as Sullivan does, they will only increase support for banning abortion (and for the dissolution of the Democratic party). This too, is not a new idea. Neither is it a good one.

Sometimes a headline says it all:

In Kerik, Bush Saw Values Crucial to Post-9/11 World

If this doesn’t problematize a narrow conception of what values mean (opposing abortion, gay marriage, and adultery) in politics, I don’t know what will. Apparently, in Bernard Kerik’s case, two affairs (not that I think that should disqualify anybody, but a fair number of Republicans seem to think those are important), tax fraud, use of police for personal gratification (as in sending homocide cops to interrogate journalists about your girlfriend’s cellphone), a screw-up in Iraq (too bad he got passed over for the Medal of Freedom), and ties to the mob are all forgivable if you fit one Republican’s description of the archetypal cop:

They’re not pretentious, they do a hard job, they don’t get paid a lot of money, they’re real people and they live in a world that is fairly black and white, with good guys and bad guys. And that’s the way President Bush looks at the world.

Never mind how many of those descriptions actually apply to either Kerik or Bush. We know at least that the last one – seeing the world with the moral complexity of a Saturday morning cartoon show – is a value which, in this White House, trumps all others. Wonder what James Dobson has to say about that.

Meanwhile, some are wondering whether there was ever an undocumented nanny at all…

There’s been a lot of buzz the past few days amongst the pundits about how the Democrats have lost touch with Red America. As I said before, I think Dems are right to be considering how they could perform better in those regions which have so often borne the brunt of GOP austerity measures. But I think it’s curious and telling how infrequent it is that we hear the Republicans accused of having lost touch with the values of Blue America. This was the election in which they lost their last Northeastern outpost, New Hampshire. The reality is that there’s a sizable, nearly contiguous piece of the country in which Republican Presidential candidates are failing (thank God) to win votes, despite Karl Rove’s best-laid plans. And despite peculiar arguments pointing out that the red areas have more land mass, about half of Americans live in the blue ones. Strange how, while we in this country hold by “One person, one vote,” not “One square mile, one vote,” conservative pundits – especially the blue-state-headquartered-punditocracy – seem to relish displaying the map and pointing out that the red part looks bigger. I think it’s fair to say that something in the American popular consciousness – maybe racial demons, maybe suspicion of crowds, maybe those much touted “millenial anxieties” over technological and social upheaval – stills holds forth America’s rural parts as more authentically American, more pure, more decent than its cities. Everyone wants to be the candidate of rural values, not urban ones. Personally, it’s important to me to raise my kids in a city precisely because I want to bring them up with the values best exemplified in cities, where larger, more diverse, more densely packed groups of people are forced to find ways to work together in proximity and sometimes in synergy. Interestingly, few of these places vote for Republicans in national elections. The two struck on September 11 are no exception.

This is an election we should have won. This is an election we could have won if the candidate had been working as hard, and as smart, as everybody else that was trying to get him elected. We almost won it anyway. It could be that we did. But given Kerry’s unwillingness to wait as long as folks did in line to vote for him before saying, in the name of national unity, that their votes needn’t be counted, we may never know.

I think the most striking find in the exit polls was that significant majorities said they supported Kerry on Iraq but Bush on the war on terror. Funny thing is, main thing Bush has done in the name of stopping terror is ignore Osama bin Laden and create a terrorist playground in Iraq, while refusing necessary funding for homeland security. This says to me that Bush succeeded in making terrorism a question of character rather than of policy. Kerry was certainly savaged by the media in the same way Gore was, while Bush too often got a free pass. But Kerry failed for months to put out a coherent, comprehensible message on Iraq (as on too many other issues), and while voters rightly prefered an alleged flip-flopper to an obvious belly-flopper on the issue, I think he shot a lot of his credibility as a strong leader and he may have lost the rhetorical battle for Commander-in-Chief. His unwillingness to aggressively defend himself, especially from the vile Swift Boat Vet attacks, can’t have helped. What’s tragic, of course, is that Bush has flip-flopped far more, even on whether we can win the war on terror, and that the extent his policy has been consistent, it’s been stubbornly, suicidely dangerous. On this issue, as on every issue, some will argue that Kerry was just too left-wing, which is anything but the truth (same goes for Dukakis, Mondale, Gore). A candidate who consistently opposed the war and articulated a clear vision of what to do once we got there could have fared much better.

Then there’s the cluster of issues the media, in an outrageous surrender to the religious right, insist on calling “moral values” (as if healthcare access isn’t a moral value). Here Kerry got painted as a left-winger while abjectly failing to expose the radical right agenda of his opponent. Most voters are opposed to a constitutional ban on all abortion, but Kerry went three debates without mentioning that it’s in the GOP platform. That, and a ban on gay adoption, which is similarly unpopular. And while he started trying towards the end to adopt values language in expressing his position on these issues and on others, it was too little, too late. An individual may be entitled to privacy about his faith and his convictions, religious or otherwise but a Presidential candidate shouldn’t expect to get too far without speaking convincingly about his beliefs and his feelings (I’m hoping to get a chance to read George Lakoff’s new book on this – maybe Kerry should as well).

This election will provide further few to those who argue that Republicans are a cadre of libertarians and the poor are all social conservatives who get convinced by the GOP to ignore class. The first problem with this argument when folks like Michael Lind articulate it is that it ignores the social liberalism of many in the working class. There are others – like the economic breakdown of voting patterns in 2000, which would make David Brooks’ head explode because the fact is Gore got the bottom three sixths and Bush got the top. But few can argue that a not insignificant number of working class voters in this country consistently vote against their economic interests, and that at least in this election, they have enough votes to swing the result. Here too some will argue the Democrats just have to sell out gay folks and feminists to win back the Reagan Democrats. I think Thomas Frank is much closer to the truth: People organize for control over their lives and their environments through the means that appear possible, and the Democrats’ ongoing retreat from an economic agenda which articulates class inequality has left the Republicans’ politics of class aesthetics (stick it to the wealthy liberals by putting prayer back in schools) as an alternative. For all the flack he got over wording, Howard Dean was speaking to an essential truth when he recognized that working-class southern whites don’t have much to show for decades of voting Republican, and Kerry didn’t make the case nearly well enough. He also seems to have bought into Republicans’ claims that Democrats always spend the last few weeks beating old folks over the head with claims that they’ll privatize social security and forgotten that Republicans, in fact, will privatize social security if they can. So he let too many of them get pulled away to the GOP. Part of the irony of the debate over the tension between the left economic agenda and their social agenda, and whether being labelled with the latter stymies the former, is that as far as public opinion goes, I see much more reason for confidence that we’ll have gained tremendous ground on gay marriage in a generation than that we will have on economic justice. As far as policy goes, the next four years are a terrifying prospect for both, and for most things we value in this country.

Don’t mourn. Organize.

I’d say Kerry’s speech is comparable to Edwards’: it hiet each of the major points it needed to, with some good moments that were memorable in the short-term but seem un-likely to get re-aired on on C-SPAN at future conventions, and some low points too.

I’d say he did a largely effective job of talking sympathetically in about his own life in a way which personalized him while tying him to a national narrative and avoiding appearing self-aggrandizing or apologetic. His explicit gendering of his parents was irritating. His unapologetic ownership of the accomplishments of 60’s movements was gratifying. His refusal to mention gay liberation, or the gay community, was not.

It was good to hear the word “poverty,” but disappointing not to hear more about it, and particularly not to see Kerry’s support for raising the minimum wage and recognizing card count neutrality agreements touted as centerpieces of his economic plan. I did think he set forth his stance on the Bush tax cuts with admirable frankness and simplicity, and in a way which doesn’t leave the Republicans much room to maneuver.

I remain pleasantly surprised to see Kerry talking about spending more money on Head Start instead of the prison system, a welcome departure from Clinton’s strategy of apeing Republican rhetoric on crime. The fact that the line has the entire staff of The New Republic apoplectic is a good sign. Calling the “family values” crowd on not valuing families is well-deserved and long overdue. Reaching out to those who self-identify as people of faith is all well and good, but you don’t need to announce that you’re doing it. The Lincoln quote is one of the great ones in American politics, and put here to great use.

All that said, it’s an exciting night.

Watching the Democratic Debate now. A couple thoughts so far:

Somewhat should ask Joe Lieberman what it means to be “strong on values.” Also, what it would mean to be weak on values, which of his competitors are weak on values, and whether the Bush administration could be characterized as “strong on values.”

Glad to see David Kay’s charges getting some play here, given the way they’ve been underplayed by the media – or arguably overshadowed by the primaries. Dean is right to point the finger at Cheney, and Kerry did a deft job of avoiding either disputing or echoing his charge. I’m not sure what Edwards has in mind when he calls for a comission organized not by Congress but by “us, the people,” although I’m all for it. Also, Edwards is in Congress too…

Sharpton has joined Kucinich in calling for everyone to stay in for a long race to mobilize all their constituencies. I think there’s a strong case for that. Also, he’s right to point out that unlike John Edwards’ dad, his couldn’t have gotten a job as a mill worker.