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Jewish World Review July 17, 2001 / 26 Tamuz 5761

Morton Kondracke

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Democrats have worsening 'culture problem' -- IF Democrats want to win back the presidency and full control of the Congress, they need to get back to "values centrism" and appeal once again to white male, religious and married voters.

So argues the Democratic Leadership Council in its latest policy magazine, Blueprint. The case makes eminent sense, but there's lots of evidence that party leaders aren't listening.

Democrats have adopted a new lingo on guns -- "gun control" is out and "sensible gun safety" is in -- but on issues such as religion, class warfare and the role of government, they're swerving left again.

In an editorial and a series of articles in the forthcoming issue of Blueprint, the New Democrats argue that the "high-octane populism" being advocated by "traditional liberals" as the key to success is "potentially disastrous" for the party.

In the 2000 election, they say, Al Gore's populist theme of "the people over the powerful" succeeded only in securing the Democratic base, turning off swing voters he should have carried, given the economic good times that prevailed.

The DLC makes no accusations, but it's pretty obvious that, like Gore, Congressional Democrats are basing many of their key policies on opposition to special interests -- specifically, oil, insurance companies and "the rich" who will benefit from Bush administration tax cuts.

In an editorial that leads off the magazine, the DLC argues that Democrats have "a culture problem" that antedated former President Bill Clinton's scandals and will continue to damage the party now that he's out of the Oval Office.

"Many voters fear that Democrats are either hostile to or indifferent to people of faith, married people with kids (especially stay-at-home moms), those who serve proudly in the military, those who own guns for self-protection or hunting, and perhaps even white males as a group," the editorial declares.

"This perception is often reinforced by the parallel belief that Democrats are excessively bound by allegiance to interest and advocacy groups that do not share mainstream values in one respect or another."

With the two parties now in a tie for the allegiance of voters, the winner of future elections will be the one that can hold and turn out its base, attract swings and even siphon off loyalists to the other side.

That's what President Bush did in 2000 with his compassionate conservative theme, which allowed him to limit Gore's advantage among white women to just 2 points.

Prior to the Monica Lewinsky debacle in his second term, Clinton made inroads among white males and married voters by sounding tough on crime, calling for the hiring of 100,000 more law enforcement officers, and backing welfare reform and V-chips to block television pornography.

He also said (not meaning it, of course) abortion should be "safe, legal and rare." In the end, he vetoed a ban on partial-birth abortion.

Moreover, Clinton declared that "the era of big government is over" and that affirmative action needed to be "mended." Little changed, but he sounded moderate.

Gore, however, reverted to out-and-out populism and suffered for it. He carried only 36 percent of the white-male vote -- the same proportion as 1988 candidate Michael Dukakis did.

Non-college educated white men, who ought to be a bedrock Democratic constituency based on economics, went for Bush 63 percent to 34 percent.

Democratic Congressional candidates fared no better than Gore among white males, who supported the GOP in House races by 59 percent to 38 percent and in Senate races by 60 to 38 percent.

Authors of Blueprint articles don't advocate abandonment of traditional stands on abortion or discrimination, but they recommend tactics to pick up support among swing voters.

Exit polls in 2000 revealed that white males support smaller government, Social Security reform and tax cuts. It's a fair bet that they also support more energy production over conservation and national missile defense, which Democrats oppose.

In upcoming elections, however, Democrats may be able to take away the mantle of fiscal responsibility from Republicans if Bush's tax cuts seem too large.

On religion, though, Democrats continue to trail. Bush carried regular churchgoers 63 percent to 36 percent, while Gore carried those who never attend church by 61 to 30 percent.

With a few exceptions, Democrats show fear and hostility toward Bush's idea of inviting church-based organizations to offer social services, and they oppose vouchers that would allow poor parents to send their children to Catholic schools.

Democrats might be helped politically if Bush decides to ban federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research, as this position would indicate he had caved into arguably extreme religious dogmatism.

On the other hand, Democrats seem to strictly follow a dogma dictated by its own liberal hard-liners, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, People for the American Way and the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.

In 2000, Gore and Democratic House candidates carried only 44 percent of married voters, among whose main concerns is the moral climate of the country.

It could be that Democrats will get lucky, and a bad economy will give them an advantage in upcoming elections. But more likely, as Blueprint declares on its cover, the key is: "It's the Culture, Stupid!"

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments by clicking here.

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