Howard Dean’s Fruitless Outreach

June 1, 2006

At least Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean is colorful; you’ve got to give him that much. But he’s not the guy to be leading the charge to reunite the Democratic Party with so-called “values voters.”

The Washington Times’ Greg Pierce reports that Dean was outraged when he heard that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist intended to call to a vote a proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

Dean called opponents of homosexual marriage “bigots.” He said, “At a time when the Republican Party is in trouble with their conservative base, Bill Frist is taking a page straight out of the Karl Rove playbook to distract from the Republican Party’s failed leadership and misplaced priorities by scapegoating LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) families for political gain, using marriage as a wedge issue.” It’s not only morally wrong, it is shameful and reprehensible,” said the enlightened Dean.

Now flashback a week or so and picture Dean on the set of the evil bigot Pat Robertson’s “700 Club.” Dean appeared as part of his effort to reclaim “values voters” for the Democratic Party. On that program Dean reportedly said the party’s platform provides that “marriage is between a man and a woman.” Later, Dean had to apologize to gay rights leaders for incorrectly stating the party’s platform position.

Surely I’m misreading one of these two reports. Which is it, Howard? Or, perhaps I should say, “Which face will you be wearing today: the bigoted or the enlightened one?”

Regardless of what the party’s official position on gay marriage is, these two side-by-side incidents reveal the Democratic Party’s predicament with “values voters.” It appears they can’t live with ’em and can’t without ’em. Democrats have been wrestling with this issue for some time now, realizing that Christian conservatives constitute a substantial part of the Republican voter base.

The Democrats’ problem connecting with “values voters” was reinforced when 2004 exit polling data, along with other concurrent polling, showed that Democrats not only have difficulty connecting with evangelical Christians, but orthodox practitioners of most religions.

They do just fine with avowed secularists, agnostics and atheists, but not with those who attend church or other religious services more regularly. A Pew Research Center poll showed that President Bush beat Kerry 64 percent to 35 percent among voters who attend church more than once a week and 58 percent to 41 percent among those who attend once a week. Those who attend just a few times a year favored Kerry 54 percent to 45 percent. But those who never attend favor Kerry 62 percent to 36 percent.

A later Pew survey had even worse news for Democrats. It revealed that only 29 percent of the respondents believed the Democratic Party is generally friendly toward religion (down from 40 percent in 2004), and 44 percent believed secular liberals have too much influence on the Democratic Party. It also showed that people believed, by a margin of 51 percent to 28 percent, that Republicans were more concerned with protecting religious values.

Apparently all that scripture John Kerry recited during the presidential campaign didn’t work. Nor did Howard Dean’s protestations that true evangelicals believe the government ought to radically redistribute wealth.

Nor did Reverend Jim Wallis’s book, “God’s Politics,” in which he advised Democrats to recast their positions on issues to make them more appealing to “values voters.”

Even the multiple seminars and retreats the Democrats have had to address their waning appeal to values voters have had little impact.

Perhaps sooner or later the Democratic Party will realize that their problem with “values voters” is not that they have failed to clearly articulate their message on values issues. It is that they have (SET ITAL) succeeded (END ITAL) in communicating their positions, loudly and clearly, despite their efforts to obfuscate near election time.

The problem isn’t that conservative Christians — generally speaking — don’t understand where the left is coming from; it’s that they do. They have expressed open contempt for certain traditional values, even though many Democrats are Christians, too.

It’s not that Democrats don’t have values voters, too. But those voters are — generally speaking again — motivated largely by a different set of values.

The Democrats’ outreach to values voters isn’t an appeal to voters who share their values — they are already firmly in the Democratic base. It’s a cynical ploy to semantically repackage their positions in terms designed to fool churchgoers (see the Pew Poll) into believing they are in their corner — politically speaking.

Too bad these reputedly “poor, uneducated and easy to command” conservative Christians aren’t so easy to command.