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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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Stephen A.

    The DNC has got to be thinking that if talking tough on conservative values, then governing as a “moderate” and sometimes as an outright liberal worked for Bush, why not for a REAL Democrat?

    Sounds like a script for Hillary, not just the West Wing.

  • paris

    12 Consejos en una catastrofe por James Nolan . Son las conclusiones de este escritor de New Orlenans después de pasar el Katrina, y especialmente de estar en una situación límite sin atención de las autoridades. A todos nos puede servir, ya que no sabemos que nos puede pasar, y sobre todo donde nos puede “pillar” una catastrofe.

  • http://kevinjjones.blogspot.com Kevin Jones

    The Colorado governor’s race might be something you all want to watch. The only current Democratic candidate, Denver DA Bill Ritter, a Catholic, has come out and said he’d support stringent abortion limitations were Roe overturned. This hasn’t endured him to the party stalwarts, who are searching for other options.

  • pdb

    It remains to be seen whether what Kaine did could be duplicated in another race. He fooled a fair number of Virginians, and some journalists, into thinking he was pro-life when in fact his position on abortion rights is indistinguishable from the Democratic Party line. He even attacked his GOP opponent for not defending abortion rights. That doesn’t sound like someone who has very deep reservations about abortion himself. Kaine’s critics on the left have asked – in relation to his death penalty stand – what’s the point of his deeply held values if he won’t take a position based on them. He may not have pulled this off against a better run campaign.

  • Michael

    As a Virginian, what also makes Kaine’s victory an interesting lesson is that a fairly liberal Catholic won against a traditional evengelical in Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell’s back yard. The key was focusing on the newly discovered exurban voters who may be turned off by the religious conservative message and who can were attracted to Kaine who “talked their talk” on values issues.

    Kaine’s victory can be traced to the far reaches of suburban Washington, D.C, where exurban voters who were believed to be conservative backed Kaine. This is the same territory where the NRA is based, where many conservative think-tanks are housed, and where the breakaway conservative Episcopal parishes are found.

    Kaine is unusual among white Democrats for his ability to talk about faith without sounding insincere. His responses to ugly attack ads about the death penalty should be a model for the future.

  • Michael

    One additional thought on the Goodbye, Catholics article. Just like the Republican’s Southern Strategy of embracing “traditional” southern values–including racism–even if it cost them Black voters, Democracts made a similar deal with the devil by stepping away from Catholic voters in order to shore up its liberal base. But like the Republicans, Democrats are questioning whether those approaches work.

    My sense is Democrats believe they can bring Catholics back in the fold by emphasizing poverty issues, foreign policy, human rights, even the death penalty as a way to contrast themselves from Republicans. Ultimately, the question is whether Catholics can be shown that their values aren’t really welcome in the Republican party and the Colorado Springs crowd or whether continue to believe they aren’t welcome in the pro-chioce, pro-gay rights Democratic party.

    i’m not sure Democrats have to abandon their pro-choice, pro-gay rights values to do this. The biggest mistake would be abandoning those values and principles in order to win a few votes. Instead, it is finding ways to say that everyone doesn’t have to agree on those issues, but instead focus on shared values around economic rights, poverty, race, and justice issues. Catholics are probably much more in sync with Democrats on those issues than they are in sync with the pro-life, anti-gay rights, pro-death penalty Republicans.

  • The Mighty Thor

    Stephen A: “Sounds like a script for Hillary, not just the West Wing.”

    You must be joking. Hillary could not be convincing at any religion except maybe “Buddhism” or Unitarianism.

    Michael–Republicans did not embrace “racism” to get Southern votes. Things are rather more complex than that. They embraced federalism which was then tied to arguments for segregation and against certain civil rights legislation. There is a difference. Belief in “states’ rights” doesn’t imply racism, and “civil rights” does not imply morally and philosophically perfect–not even in the mid 20th century context when segregation was tied to racist ideology but more generally to a system of ingrained habits and prejudices.

    Since that time, segregation has persisted, and by some measures it has increased. This is due in large part to the legacy of Democrat welfare policies (which Republicans are not really interested in ending) and ideologies which might be construed as racist insofar as they identify some (but not all) races with perpetual dependence and victimhood, unable to succeed without “help.”

  • Stephen A.

    MightyThor: I didn’t say Hill’s attempt to seem mainstream would actually WORK. Just that she’d use the Kaine victory as a script for ’08.

    You did ‘nail’ her true core constituency, though.

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    Hillary Clinton was raised Methodist, and as far as I know still is one. In Washington DC she and Bill attended Foundry United Methodist Church, which leans further left than most Methodist churches, but I see no reason to use that as a pretext to discount their faith.

    According to another Foundry member, the Clintons attended services regularly all through their time in Washington, and “played an active role in the life of the church”. I see no reason to doubt the sincerity of her beliefs.

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    Wait, I meant to link to the article by that Foundry member. Here, Amy Sullivan.

  • Michael

    In fact, the Clintons–unlike the Bushes–were regular church-goers in Washington. In both the Hillary and Bill memoirs, they have been quite religious and talk often of faith. The Bushes don’t have a regular church in Washington, except the occaisional visit to St. John’s, across from the White House, which very high Episcopal (and relativey liberal) and a far cry from either of their faith traditions.

  • Stephen A.

    That’s right Avram, she’s sincerely liberal. When she starts playing “Southern Baptist” in 2008, We’ll remind her of her roots.

    That Bush is confused about his faith does not surprise me, Michael. Though to be a bit more charitable, maybe he just didn’t find a local church that was a good “fit” in liberal DC.

  • Michael

    Stephen, you are probably correct about Bush and finding a local church. He would have to wander pretty far beyond the DC line to find a church that was consistent with his beliefs and populated with people of the same social class.

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    Stephen, it’s Bill Clinton who’s the southern Baptist.

    Anyway, I notice you’re making all sorts of snarky remarks about Hillary Clinton’s religious beliefs, but you’re making them in ways that aren’t amenable to factual analysis. What sort of behavior do you expect Hillary to engage in (that stuff you’re characterizing as “playing ‘Southern Baptist’”), and how exactly would it be inconsistent with her being a liberal Methodist?

  • http://www.bluffton.edu/~bergerd Dan Berger

    I second Avram here.

    Furthermore, there’s the rather disturbing trend of those who are both theologically and politically conservative, conflating the two positions, which are quite thoroughly separate. I’ve known quite enough theological conservatives who are well to my left politically (Like TMatt I’m more-or-less a Labor Democrat).

  • http://www.renewal-1.com Dale R. Evans

    The Republicans skilllfully exploited the abortion and gay rights issues to strenghten and expand their support from the religious middle class, even while pursuing economic policies harmful to that class. The economics has made Republicans vulnerable. Kaine and Carter have shown how to exploit that vulnerablity – reduce the polarization caused by abortion and gay rights. Expose both to be amalgams of subordinate issues . . . some worthy . . . some objectionable.

  • Stephen A.

    My point about Hillary is that she’ll pander to the religious right, if need be, to make her point. But it will be phony.

    Someone just told me that McCain was actually supporting the Intelligent Design folks. If true (and I’d be shocked if it is) it would be another exmaple of NOT being true, but pandering.

    And didn’t the SB’s invite Bill to leave the denomination?

  • Michael

    Actually, there’s no need to pander to the religious right since they are not a constituency that Democrats need (or even want). Her mainline, mainstream protestant beliefs are consistent with the beliefs of many political and relgious moderates as well as respected by religious liberals. While secular liberals may not appreciate them, it’s not like they are going to vote for a Republican anyway.

  • Stephen A.

    Sorry to burst some bubbles here, but Hillary has already been “positioning” herself as a faux social conservative (i.e. pandering to the religious right and political moderates) for over a year now on abortion and the Iraq war.

    Unfortunately, it’s just not that believable.

    And, Michael, wasn’t there a discussion on another thread about words having meaning?

    If the Democrat Left alone could elect a president without the “religious right’s” support, Nader would be in his fifth year by now.

    If throwing words like “moderate” and “mainstream” around makes you feel good about how her true social beliefs are percieved by the rest of the public, that’s super for you! Good luck with that!

  • Michael

    Stephen, her position on abortion and the war are consistent with those of most moderate and mainline Protestants and Catholics and aren’t close to the position held by the religious right.

    If the Democrat Left alone could elect a president without the “religious right’s” support, Nader would be in his fifth year by now.

    There is a whole group of people in between the secular, Democratic left and the religious right and that’s the group that everyone is fighting over (and the group that Kaine won). Democrats don’t need to woo the religious right. Arguably, the religous right is much more valuable as a foil and a group to raise money about. Instead, both Democrats and Republicans are shooting for the moderates, both politically and religiously.

  • Stephen A.

    “Arguably, the religous right is much more valuable as a foil and a group to raise money about.”

    Ditto on the Religious Left’s effect on fundraising for the Right.

    Yes, Hillary is moving to the center, at least, on some issues. Some would say she’s moving FURTHER to the Right than just ‘the center,’ but I won’t argue that point further here.

    Let’s just say I’m waiting for the day when she fully boards the God and Family Values Trains that Kaine rode to victory, because she can’t mouth those words without hews and cries from the Left that she’s gone batty/Rightie, and laughter from the Right, since it will be implausible and obviously posturing.

  • The Mighty Thor

    Nader was the choice of the Democrat Left in Bush vs. Gore mostly for reasons of protest and disgruntlement. Nader is, in many ways that leftists have trouble with, a conservative. And he is more open than most to having a serious discussion with conservatives. But maybe that’s just what comes from marginality.

  • http://TREE The Mighty Thor

    why not just drop the left-right stuff. If someone is, say, a theological conservative and a labor democrat, are they a labor democrat in the same way and for the same reasons as an atheist or theological liberal who is a labor democrat? It is more a case of fundamentally rival and antithetical philosophies that nevertheless have some overlap, particularly in the realm of pragmatic and reactive politics. This is not quite common ground. If I support a predominantly materialist movement because I have principled and practical reasons to agree with its ‘pro-labor’ position, whatever I gain I am nevertheless aiding and abetting a movement whose premises and core values will, from a Christian vantage point, corrupt labor issues and much else. What people tend to struggle with then is this sort of of conundrum–embrace “common ground” or recoil from cooptation into something rotten. That’s why not voting has such appeal.

  • Michael

    Kaine didn’t board the God and Family Values Train given his lukewarm support for abortion rights (despite personal objection) and opposition to the death penalty. There aren’t alot of “God and family values” candidates on the right running with those positions. Heck being pro-death penalty is practically a requirement if you want the blessings of the Colorado Sprinds crowd.

    Can Hillary pull it off? Maybe not, but Mark Warner, Evan Bayh, Bill Richardson or John Edwards could.

    On the same token, is there any Republican presidential wannabe who is spouting the “God and Family Values” line? Definitely not McCain or Guiliani. Guiliani is as liberal on social issues as Clinton is (and has had a lot more affairs and marriages) and McCain has shown little interest in pandering to the family values crowd.

  • http://www.nhreligion.com Stephen A.

    Michael, I think Rick Santorum is definitely a “God and Family Values” guy, though I don’t think he’ll go very far with it, due to who he is.

    Otherwise, good points. Warner and Bayh are relative moderates in their party who couldn’t be labeled as social liberals hell-bent on destroying American Values.

    Hillary on the other hand…

    Well, let’s just say she has “baggage” and a polarizing image. If rhetoric about “bringing Americans together” means anything, she won’t be the candidate.

  • David

    A year or two ago, Bill Clinton chose to “leave” the SBC. He wasn’t “invited to leave” the SBC, but criticism of his positions on several issues led to his decision to dismiss himself from them.

  • David

    Actually, the technical term is “dis-associate” himself from them.

  • http://www.rightdemocrat.blogspot.com Right Democrat

    As a Democrat who believes in traditional social values and economic populism, I would love to see the party embrace evangelical and socially conservative voters. I think a lot of evangelical Christians and Catholics would return to the Democratic Party if there is a place at the table for those who are pro-life and pro-traditonal family.

  • Ruth A. Crocker

    During the 8 years of President Clinton (and Hillary?) I believe more was stressed about Family Values and Faith (real heart issues) than the last 5 yrs. Two parents loved their daughter in front of us, yet did not seemingly exploit her in the press….there was closeness. Hillary wrote/spoke out for children (still does). The 35% who “hate” Hillary (religious right?) might never be changed…..probably same 35% clinging to Bush’s failed policies. I am ready for the 65% of believing, faith-filled, caring independents, Democrats and yes, religious right who will, to once again join together to support someone we already know the WORLD will once again respect and work together. We may not be “of this world, but as Jesus said, we are still “in this world” and that global prespective is necessary, I believe, in this era of earth history. R. Crocker, Garland, TX.