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Dec 19, 2007 7:15 pm

Each Party has Its Own Baggage to Shed

On Monday, I said I awaited an article explaining why when Democrats like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton profess their Christian faith, they are expressing their freedom of religion, and when Republicans profess their Christian faith, they are threatening our freedom to be as religious or secular as we wish. Partisans on the right would answer by charging “liberal bias,” saying it is the same thing why when Republicans earn big money they are being greedy and that when Democrats earn big money they are doing it to put their kids through college. Partisans on the left would answer that it is true – today the historic wall separating church and state is threatened by Evangelicals on the right not liberal Protestants on the left.

This question gets to a deeper phenomenon, highlighting one of the essential dynamics in a campaign. Theodore White, the great presidential reporter, described campaigns as opportunities for Americans to weigh the past and assess the present in shaping the future. Romantics like to think of campaigns as opportunities for the best man – or woman – to win. But all too frequently, rather than choosing a candidate they like and trust, voters end up settling on who they perceive to be the lesser of two evils.

Similarly, while parties like to think that they are presenting their best and most noble faces to the electorate, frequently campaigns are about containing a party’s least attractive and extreme elements. Since 1972, Democratic candidates, especially the successful nominees, have been running away from the spectre of George McGovern’s losing “acid, amnesty and abortion” campaign. Jimmy Carter in 1976, Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, and even Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, and John Kerry worked hard to distance themselves from the charge that they rejected traditional mainstream American values. At the same time, since 1964, Republican candidates have been haunted by the ghosts of Barry Goldwater’s failing “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” campaign. In other words, to win, Democrats have to prove they are neither libertines nor wimps; Republicans have to prove they are neither totalitarians nor racists.

Two of the most successful modern politicians, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, were particularly attuned to their respective party’s baggage. Bill Clinton’s “values talk” and “Sister Souljah” moment denouncing a Rap singer as a racist, were attempts to prove that he was a New Democrat, rooted in old traditions and strong enough to stand up to the party’s special interest groups – and by analogy America’s enemies. Ronald Reagan’s Goldwaterism with a smile bled the toxins from the conservatives’ image as cranky control freaks. Reagan understood that he needed to reach out to African-Americans and other liberal constituencies that would never support him, not so much to win their votes, as to reassure moderates of his own centrism and reasonableness.

Especially after all the Culture Wars of the last few years, Republicans have to disprove Kevin Phillips’ overheated but best-selling charge that George W. Bush has brought about an “American Theocracy.” As Republicans reach out to the religious right, they need to reassure the less religious – or less militantly religious – center. When Democrats like Obama and Clinton profess their faith, however, few worry that they will create an American Theocracy, but many are reassured that a Democratic victory will not vanquish what’s left of the traditional American consensus. So, yes, Theodore White was partially right. On Election Day, Americans do weigh their hopes and dreams; but they also seek to manage their fears and nightmares, from the left and the right.

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