Blogs > Cliopatria > Democrats Need to Embrace the Obvious

Jul 14, 2004 3:04 pm

Democrats Need to Embrace the Obvious

John Kerry's advisors think he has to emphasize values, says the NYT. It's about time. Maybe while he's at it he'll stop referring to his plans. When he came to Seattle a month ago I went out to watch his talk to get a feel for him in person. He kept talking about his plans. He had a plan for health care. He had a plan for homeland security. "I have a plan for that" was the only line afterwards I could remember.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson was quoted by the Times as saying Republicans usually emphasize values and Democrats rights. This is one of the smartest observations I've heard lately. It's one of those statements that is so obvious you wonder why the Democrats haven't figured this out before. Or did they figure this out and decide they were fine with the Republicans monopolizing values? Serious mistake, if so. If you see the winning team hiring great pitchers doesn't it make sense to go out and start looking for pitchers yourself? You don't need to hire their pitchers. If they hired righties you can hire lefties. But damnit get in the game. If you don't talk about values people think you don't have values.

And by not talking about values the Democrats have let Republicans define values narrowly in moralistic terms that give them an advantage with the evangelical community. How dumb is this?

Of course, the Democrats' approach to politics is rooted in the party's history as the defender of the rights of Jews, blacks and other minorities, including women (who should never be described as a minority anyway). But there's no downside to stealing your opponent's approach when it doesn't cost you anything. And that's the situation here. Democrats can define values in their terms and win over people who use values as a kind of test of character.

Take health care, as an example. Democrats always treat it as a rights issue. But it's a values issue, too. What kind of society lets 43 million people get by without health insurance?

Voters don't care for the details of policies. It bores them when politicians even begin explaining the difference between Part A and Part B in Medicare. But values are issues susceptible to public debate. You don't need to know about policy details to comment on the issue when it's framed in terms of values.

Again, this all sounds so obvious I fear I am insulting the readers of this blog. But Democrats still are reluctant to embrace the obvious.

A few weeks ago David Brooks was ranting in the NYT about the indifference of Democrats to religion. I think he was wrong. It's not religion per se that the voters want politicians talking about. It's values.

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More Comments:

David a. Cousins - 8/27/2004

Pesky liberals? You are right. You people are pesky on the left. And intolerant, arrogant, and in Kerrys case, ALOOF.

Jonathan Dresner - 7/14/2004

I've never entirely understood the values debate. Values, as others have pointed out, are meaningless without implementation, and nobody can accuse the Democrats of not trying to get the Federal Government to DO stuff. Rights are expressions, implementations, of values.

Really, the debate is between Democrats, who think we need to do something about the ways in which we fall short of our ideals, and Republicans, who "value" our present state (and our pre-regulated economic state) as if everything were OK except for those pesky liberals.

Mark Daniels - 7/10/2004

One of the reasons I think that Democrats don't talk about "values" is that the only way such discussions seem to be approached these days is from a sectarian perspective, a la Bush.

But they would do well to remember that Americans--irrespective of their religion--have shared values. So long as "values-based" policies don't threaten any group from exercising their religious freedom, it's possible (in fact, essential) for governments to base their policies on some values. Even highway speed limit regulations, for example, are undergirded by some shared values: life, health, safety, stewardship of air and fuel, etc.

FDR's proclamation of the Four Freedoms was a statement of values. The Dems would do well to emulate this approach and get back into the values business.

In spite of diverging greatly from its roots in Jefferson and Jackson, there is a straight line between the emphasis on rights upheld by those two and the Democratic Party of today. Indeed, in Jefferson's personal life, you can see the consequences of a life lived in the pursuit of one's rights untethered by values: he was a spendthrift who left his family broke; he was a racist who viewed his slaves as property to be used in any way he saw fit; his desire for power was so complete that he engaged in the most outrageous and backstabbing demagoguery in order to attain the presidency; he claimed to believe in limited government, but when he took the reins of power, he wielded it with breathtaking and barely constitutional audacity.

Values matter. So do rights. When either party is able to strike a balance between these two poles, I believe that we'll see the country break free of the current red state-blue state deadlock.

Derek Charles Catsam - 7/8/2004

I've never gotten this free pass that republicans get with claiming "values' independent of actually explaining what that means. If you are running on "values" then implicitly are you not saying your opponent has lesser values? And yet no one ever dares to articulate it this way. No one can deny that Jimmy carter had "values." So what? I nagree with you that the dems seem just to have conceded this territory -- I can see a great speechwriter (Kerry, call, I'll make the time) coming up with an epic on this. They talk values, yet they . . . would be the epistrophe. Or, they talk values. We . . .
The possibilities are endless.