As recently as two years ago, the conventional wisdom was that the Democratic Party planned to make peace with religious and cultural conservatives. Shortly after Barack Obama was elected president, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, a liberal Catholic, wrote: “(o)ne of (Obama’s) important promises was to end the cultural and religious wars that have disfigured American politics for four decades.”
Like Andrew Sullivan, who wrote an influential cover story for The Atlantic about the same subject, Dionne stopped short of predicting that President Obama would do so. Yet both Sullivan and Dionne portrayed Obama as a likely healer, an executive who would seek common ground on controversial social issues, such as abortion.
Obama’s first years in office seemed to fulfill the meliorists’ hopes. At his commencement speech at Notre Dame in May 2009, Obama struck a conciliatory note:
Let us reduce the number of women seeking abortions. Let’s reduce the unintended pregnancies. . . .Let’s honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded not only in sound science, but also in clear ethics, as well as respect for the equality of women.
Obama was not the only Democrat whose rhetoric on cultural issues claimed to be centrist. Bob Casey, Jr. of Pennsylvania was elected senator in 2006 as an avowed pro-life Democrat. All of the party’s major 2008 presidential candidates – Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Obama – declared their opposition to gay marriage.
But for Democrats, it’s not 2008 anymore. It’s 1972 – the year that cultural liberals became associated in the public mind with the Democratic Party. Celebrities such as Warren Beatty, Shirley MacLaine, and Gloria Steinem worked the floors and backrooms of the party’s national convention in Miami Beach to get George McGovern nominated.
While Republicans love to portray Democrats as hostage to cultural elites and young radicals, Democrats are giving headaches to two of their socially moderate constituencies, progressive Catholics and evangelicals. Dionne, for example, complained recently that the party’s pro-choice supporters were “undercut(ting)” progressive Catholics because they insist that religious institutions should not be exempt from the contraception mandate.
Dionne has reason to complain, and not just because of the HHS requirement. In the past eleven months, the administration has: rejected the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ bid for the human trafficking contract, despite that the USCCB scored “significantly higher” than competitors. And the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which declares a state does not have to recognize a gay marriage performed in another state, will no longer be defended in federal courts.
Why have Democrats dropped moderation? The answer is that the Democratic Party is like nothing so much as a professional baseball team that is adjusting course before the trade deadline. Its front office is playing the rookies instead of the vets, and it has new minority owners attempting to seize an historic opportunity to win it all.
The front office in the Democratic Party, so to speak, is its presidential strategists, such as Obama’s chief lieutenant, David Axelrod, and longtime pollster Stanley Greenberg. Both have implied or said outright that Obama’s best path to re-election is to appeal to college-educated whites rather.
“There are a lot of ways for us to get to 270, and it’s not just the traditional map,” Axelrod told The New York Times. Axelrod’s comment was decoded in a follow-up story last month. “(W)e battled to get them back,” Greenberg said of appeals to working-class white voters: “They were sizeable in number and central to the base of the Democratic Party. . . (W)e didn’t know that we would never get them back, that they were alienated and dislodged.” Greenberg added that he is, “much more interested in the affluent suburban voters than the former Reagan Democrats.”
While working-class whites are no longer a redoubt of cultural conservatism, they are considerably more conservative about abortion than college-educated whites. Witness an April 2010 Gallup poll that asked respondents if abortion should be legal under any circumstance: 31 percent of college graduates agreed, 26 percent of those with some college, and 18 percent of those with a high-school degree.
Little wonder, then, that the Obama administration rejected the human-trafficking contract and, at least so far, has ignored religious institutions on the contraception mandate. The Obama White House decided it needs the votes, money, and support of pro-choice Democrats more than the progressive Catholics and evangelicals.
The new minority owners in the Democratic Party are gay donors, such as Obama’s campaign finance director, Rufus Gifford, and the White House social secretary, Jeremy Bernard. Gifford and Bernard are just two of the fifteen gay men who sit on Obama’s finance committee, according to Politico.
While polls show that the public is divided on whether homosexuals should be granted the right to marry, thirty states have banned gay nuptials and a Democrat, President Bill Clinton, signed the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act into law. Legalizing gay marriage in all fifty states would be nothing short of radical – more radical, for example, than the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade that invalidated the handful of state laws that banned abortion altogether. Radical, but it would represent a staggering victory for gay donors if the Supreme Court strikes down DOMA.
It’s little wonder, too, that the Obama administration has dropped its defense of DOMA. It wants the money, votes, and activism of gays.
Not all Democratic administrations are the same, of course. One can imagine a Hillary Clinton administration reaching out to working-class whites and religious progressives more than Obama will in 2012.
This would also mean dropping the pretence that a Democratic administration would prefer to call a truce in the culture war than simply win it altogether.