Raising Kaine in the Democratic Party

MosesWithout a doubt, the most interesting religion plot in last week's election coverage was the victory of Democrat Timothy Kaine in the Virginia gubernatorial race over Republican Jerry Kilgore. Democrats haven't been this fired up about God-talk and values since the early years of The West Wing. The faith element in Kaine's daring campaign -- he even bought time for ads on Christian radio stations -- was highlighted in The Washington Post early and often this week. Kaine was presented as a kind of moderate Moses, poised to lead his party back into the promised land of Middle America.

This language in an early A-1 piece by reporter Robert Barnes captures the tone, with a crucial quote from George Mason University professor Mark J. Rozell:

Kaine defended himself against Kilgore's attack ... by saying that it is his beliefs as a deeply religious Catholic that lead him to oppose the death penalty and abortion. But he also said he would follow the law on capital punishment and advocate laws that protect the right to abortion.

"The elite never really got that argument," said David Eichenbaum, one of Kaine's media advisers, referring to columnists and others who wondered how Kaine could be, in his words, "morally" opposed and yet pledge not to try to change the law. "But people who heard him got it."

"I think this is an interesting test case for Democrats to see if you can run a faith-based campaign focused on values and do so as a progressive candidate in a Southern state," Rozell said. It worked ... because of Kaine's frequent reference to his service as a missionary in Honduras while in law school and his familiarity with the language of religion. "It did not come off as calculated," he said.

In effect, Kaine played what could be called the "Mario Cuomo" card, saying that he held conservative beliefs but that he could not force them on the public square.

Conservative pundit Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard was not all that impressed. Here is how he described the Kaine gambit, in an op-ed page piece that he published in The Wall Street Journal:

Mr. Kaine took the unusual step for a Democrat of talking about his Catholic faith. "The Bible teaches we can accomplish great things when we work together," he said in a radio ad. He attributed his opposition to capital punishment to his deep faith. But his faith wasn't so deep, Mr. Kaine assured voters, that it would keep him from carrying out the death penalty as governor.

Establishment Democrats cheered, since Kaine did not -- as Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter had done decades years before -- show signs that his conservative, yet privatized, religious beliefs might lead to actual compromises on social issues. He talked conservative, while promising to act liberal, without hinting that he would seek compromises somewhere in the middle.

This is the part of the story, in my opinion, that journalists would be wise to watch.

The religious left is beginning to get its rhetorical act together, but there are no signs of actual changes on what the Democratic Party might support in terms of compromise legislation on the hot-button religious, moral and cultural issues. What is changing are the words and the images, not the political ideas and actions.

SheenWestWingWords will almost certainly not be enough to attract believers caught up in the faith-based battles that have dominated recent elections, noted Los Angeles Times columnist Rosa Brooks. Religious conservatives, in both political parties, want more than words.

Democrats should be wary of jumping to conclusions in the wake of Democrat Timothy Kaine's Virginia gubernatorial victory. ... (Imagining) that red-state voters will turn blue if only Democrats talk more about faith misunderstands the role of conservative evangelical Christianity in American politics. Conservative evangelical churches played a big role in delivering voters for George W. Bush in 2004 -- but neither that nor Kaine's victory prove that red-state voters are simply hungry for "religion" and will reward whichever candidate speaks most convincingly about his or her personal faith.

In conclusion, journalists who are interested in the Democratic Party's attempts to get religion would do well to read a fascinating essay titled "Goodbye Catholics" by Mark Stricherz in the current issue of Commonweal magazine. It describes the work of the late Fred Dutton, whose work as a Democratic Party strategist on the left set the stage for today's politics of the pew gap.

Here is a crucial statement of this essay's thesis:

(Nothing) Dutton did was as influential and far-reaching as his work on a Democratic commission that ran from 1969 to 1972. Better known as the McGovern Commission, for its chairman, Senator George McGovern of South Dakota, the twenty-eight-member panel became the vehicle by which a handful of antiwar liberals revolutionized the Democratic Party.

Of this group, Dutton emerged as the chief designer and builder. His goal was nothing less than to end the New Deal coalition, the electoral alliance that had supported the party since 1932 around a broad working-class agenda. In its place, Dutton sought to build a "loose peace constituency," a collection of groups opposed to the Vietnam War and more generally the military-industrial complex. To this end, Dutton recognized that Democrats would need to appeal to three new constituencies -- young people, college-educated suburbanites, and feminists -- while ceasing to woo two old ones -- Catholics and working-class whites.

So there's the rub for those who want to raise up Kaine as a political prophet.

How does the post-Sexual Revolution Democratic Party continue to draw enthusiastic support from the its strongest supporters in abortion-rights groups and university faculty lounges, while also seeking to reach out to the now politically incorrect elements of the old New Deal coalition? Can Democrats please traditional Catholics and Bible Belt populists with words, while pleasing activists on the left with deeds?

Stay tuned. The Democrats hope to take this story line into the West Wing.

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