Let's ask the real election-year question: Why isn't the Democratic Party poised with forks and knives, ready for November's sizzling elephant steak? Republican popularity spirals while Florida Senator Mark Rubio denies verified science, yet there's genuine fear of a GOP Senate takeover. We should be dreaming of 1964, when Democrats held two-thirds majorities in both houses after routing Goldwater.
I want to know. I'm a pro-life Democrat, and I'm active. I'm on my party's town committee and I served as an alternate delegate at the recent state convention. I worry of chairmanships featuring Oklahoma's irascible Senator James Inhofe.
But I'm also an evangelical Christian and I see why Democrats hardly inspire: We're woefully tone-deaf to traditional people of faith. Amy Sullivan wrote about it in 2008 in The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats Are Closing the God Gap, concentrating on John Kerry's failed 2004 presidential election bid. The takeaway: Americans think religiously. Deal with it.
I hereby appeal to the Democratic National Committee: Buy or borrow the book. It's a great read - and Sullivan nailed it. Change a few names we've got a blow-by-blow, up-to-the minute account.
Data-driven media doyens dwell on survey-informed analysis when pondering my party's dilemma. They blame the sluggish economy in an off-year election while Obamacare stumbled at the starting gate, then assure us of a dazzling long-term future: Demographic shifts with rising minority populations seal the GOP's eventual doom. I'm not so sanguine. Nothing is inevitable, and multiple-choice questions in polls often force answers when feelings linger beyond the offered selections. That's why Ronald Reagan won despite the unpopularity of his policies (we forget that). Intuitive, savvy politicians sense moods and probe deeper into the details. For one, all the talk of a rising tide of "nones" blinds us to the eighty percent of Americans still claiming religious belief. For another, most minority groups, while progressive on economics, tilt right on religion, abortion, and marriage. Still another: forty percent of all white evangelicals rate themselves as politically moderate, punching a gaping hole in the Republican armor - which oblivious Democrats fail to exploit because they're not at the scene: A 2011 Gallup poll found that 52 percent seldom, if ever, attend church. Twenty-seven percent said they attend weekly.
Old-style political professionals would worry, whatever their personal beliefs: Are we dwelling in a wonky cultural cul-de-sac?
Kerry's campaign wasn't even aware of evangelical and Catholic moderates in 2004. It hired Mara Vanderslice to spearhead religious outreach (the Republicans employed entire teams), and she discovered a void of databases for faith-driven voters. Things tumbled downhill from there. In a stroke of cluelessness, for example, purists nixed Democratic mega-church pastor Bill Hybels from its list of potential convention speakers. His crime: He's for traditional marriage and against abortion. The Democratic big tent shrank to a pup tent while the anti-abortion Republican conveners welcomed Rudy Giuliani, Michael Bloomberg, and Mitt Romney - all pro-choicers (Romney changed his stance the following year).
The party seemingly learned its lesson by the 2006 Congressional races and again in 2008. Then-Chairman Howard Dean welcomed consistent pro-lifers (we're pro-life from conception to death, so we resonate with Democratic-style safety nets and environmental policies). He even appeared on the 700 Club. Eric Sapp, a political consultant with a youth ministry background, met with evangelicals in Western Michigan and heard an earful of anti-abortion arguments, then unveiled the naked emperor: Reversing Roe v. Wade would be a Pyrrhic victory. Abortion would remain legal in at least 40 states - and it's already almost impossible to get one in the other ten. Meanwhile, the Democratic approach would aid poor mothers and allay economic fears, possibly reducing abortions by thirty percent.
He dropped the bomb: "Does that still make the Republicans the more pro-life party?"
Now that's what I'm talking about: Old-fashioned bridge-building. Baby-kissing political operatives should do it in their sleep: "I see your concern ... Let's work this out ..." They'd know that a third of all Democrats consider themselves pro-life and, while it's true that most Americans don't want to outlaw abortion, they also don't like it. Heap your scorn and dismiss us as Neanderthals, but we consistent pro-lifers are still here at the end of the day, bridge-building tools in hand.
Sullivan rang notes of hope when she finished her book, but the deafness has since crept back. An example: Democrats for Life proposed platform language in 2012 acknowledging inner-party differences: "We recognize the diversity of views as a source of strength and welcome into our ranks all Americans who may hold differing positions on these and other issues." They sought "common ground." The response: No. Don't give an inch.
I'll heed President Obama's call for empathy and understand the pro-choice argument: You don't want back-alley abortions. I get it. It's a compelling argument, even though I ultimately find the pro-life stance more convincing. Reciprocate, please. Say it: Our side wants to protect the unborn life. Is that so hard? Or were pro-life party lions like Thomas Eagleton, Robert and Ethel Kennedy, Eunice and Sargent Shriver, Tip O'Neill, Ella Grasso, and Hubert Humphrey connivers in the "War On Women?"
Another example: The Obama Administration dawdled for a year and a half before nominating Suzan Johnson Cook as the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. The Senate did not approve her until 2011. Critics said administration officials shackled her in micromanagement, rendering them nearsighted to warnings of religious killings. Johnson Cook resigned last October, claiming she needed private sector employment to put her kids through college. Thomas Farr, professor of religion and international affairs at Georgetown University, commented: More dawdling "will confirm what many already suspect: (The administration) does not view U.S. international religious freedom policy as a priority."
The president has still not nominated a successor.
And then there are worrisome court decisions. I get chills when a judge tells a professional photographer that compromising her religiously-informed actions is the "price of citizenship." Tell that to an Amish farmer. Or a hijab-wearing Muslim. Or a Quaker conscientious objector. Can Democratic leaders see the collateral damage? True or not, we're pegged as the "big government" party spawning "big government" courts - and voters make their decisions based on their perceptions. Americans generally want the FDR-inspired safety net; they don't want a baby sitter.
But I wonder: Do my party's leaders have the ears to hear? Do they even wonder why GOP refugees don't flock to us? Can they see through their own prejudices, which often slap a Pat Robertson mask on people like me?
I hope they soon recover their political intelligence. The prospect of a climate-change denying Senate is truly frightening.