Monday, March 28, 2005

The Sound Of Silence

The Terri Schiavo case dominated the headlines and was covered nicely at VOR. Two editorials from the New York Times stood out in my mind as the most fascinating takes on the story. David Brooks offers his usual attempt to appear unbiased, while implicitly condemning Democrats, (although his recent op-ed on K Street slammed Republicans exclusively), but actually makes some decent points. The two things that stand out from his argument are how much social conservatives distrust a judiciary that does not reflect their values and how difficult it is for Democrats to make concise and convincing arguments when their opponents use religious language. I have often criticized Democrats for overlooking issues of family and faith, but I recognize how difficult it is for Democrats to make these arguments in today’s political environment. The Schiavo case is a perfect example of this quandary. I have seen Democrats making the rounds on cable television talking about “states’ rights” to justify their position, which is disturbing on many levels. The fallback position is to mutter something about respecting the courts and their decisions, which Democrats use as a crutch on many controversial social issues. But what happens when the courts no longer support liberal values? With conservatives seeking to radically reshape the judiciary, Democrats must stand firm on controversial appointments but also develop arguments that are appealing on both moral and institutional grounds. The judiciary might not always remain the institutional safety net it is now.

Bold liberals like Frank Rich take on social conservatives directly, but I am not sure how his arguments would resonate with a broader cross section of Americans, as opposed to the readership of the New York Times. Rich has made it his personal fight to expose the hypocrisies of the new “moral values” America, and while this quest has gained him admiration from liberals, it is likely a poor strategy for Democratic politicians to take. In the end, the Democrats chose a smart strategy on the Schiavo story, which was to stay out of the way while Republicans grandstanded the issue and appeared politically opportunistic. But I also fear that if Democrats do not eventually develop their voice on moral issues, or continue to argue that these concerns are not within their domain, they will eventually pay a political price for their silence, since Americans will be confused as to where they stand.

This is exactly what has happened in the foreign policy arena, as Matthew Yglesias captures wonderfully in his article in the American Prospect. Since Democratic politicians primarily win on domestic issues, they duck and cover when foreign policy comes up instead of developing serious ideas. Similar to the “values” debate, there are few Democrats who think carefully about foreign policy, mostly because there is little incentive to do so in local and state races (for Democrats at least).

As I see it, when confronted with moral values and national security issues, where the GOP seems to be strongest, the Democrats can either adopt the Frank Rich strategy of counterpunching with unabashed and likely unpopular liberal ideas, remain silent and hope the focus changes back to the economy or health care, or develop more moderate proposals to reach out to non-partisan voters. The third option is preferred but very difficult.


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