A new Dem agenda

Whoever officially wins this election -- at this writing, it's technically still a squeaker that could conceivably go either way, though it's looking like Bush's first election to office -- what is clear is that the Republicans owned the political agenda. I'm not talking about Iraq or terrorism, though those were significant issues. What I'm talking about is what got so many people to turn out and vote Republican on Tuesday: values.

It has been a long, meandering slide for the Democrats over the decades since the civil rights era, when the Democratic Party last was pushing the moral agenda forward. Some people point to the election of Ronald Reagan as the watershed moment for the rise of conservatism. For eight years, the Dems were rocked on their heels. But they still had fight. They still debated on values.

In 1988, it all changed. When Michael Dukakis was nominated, at first he seemed a hopeful candidate, the governor of the "Massachusetts Miracle." And George H.W. Bush, with his seeming lack of personality and problems with the "vision thing," seemed vulnerable. But it wasn't to be. One can point to any number of reasons why Dukakis lost the election. But there was one moment when the Democrats lost their hold on morality: When Bush the elder called Dukakis a "Liberal," spitting out the word like an epithet, and Dukakis sputtered and backpedalled and denied it, sounding like a guilty man.

And the Democrats were lost.

Bill Clinton regained the White House for the Democrats only with popular minority votes (in part thanks to Ross Perot), but he won on personality and intelligence. His capable management of the government, working with Congress to balance the budget, won him points. But let's face it, the Democrats suffered yet again on the morality question when he was caught with Monica Lewinsky. (Never mind that the Republicans managed to successfully ignore and quash any talk of George H.W. Bush's sexual escapades, which were well known in Texas society.)

Now, when people talk about morality in politics, they talk about the "sanctity of marriage" and "pro life" stances and getting creationism taught in schools. And nobody in the Democratic Party ever debates these questions on moral terms, or questions why people need an anti-gay-marriage amendment to stop them from turning gay, or why a party advocating small government weighs such importance in establishing government authority over a woman's womb, or why people fear their faith is so weak that government must enforce it.

Today, equal rights for all is not considered a moral question. Graft in government is not considered a moral question. Lying is considered "spin" and is considered morally justified. Educating our children is not considered a moral question. Executing innocent people is not considered a moral question. Killing 100,000 people in Iraq is not considered a moral question. Economic justice and relief for the growing poor population in this country is not considered a moral question. None of these things are considered moral questions. What passes for morality today is intolerance, bigotry, divisiveness -- all expressed in loud voices of outrage and privation.

The Democrats must realize now that they cannot roll over on these issues any more. And they need to realize that the old solutions aren't going to fly, either.

Everyone wants sensible government. What "sensible" means, reasonable minds can disagree. But the Dems have lost the heart of America. Dean knew it. Kucinich knew it. John Kerry seemed to realize it ... but too little, too late.

It's time the Democrats focus not on what's expedient, but on what's right.


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