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Democrats hope to appeal to 'value voters'
by Philip Elliott
Scripps Howard News Service


January 24, 2005

Washington - With black-tie affairs heralding a new era in Washington and whirlwind meetings with lawmakers and officials, the leaders of the Christian Right spent Inaugural Week preparing for the next session of Congress and the next four years of George W. Bush's presidency.

The constituency is a growing demographic in size and importance and with war chests scattered across dozens of groups in the city and mailing lists almost unrivaled in any other realm, Christian conservative groups are already clamoring to advance an agenda during the second term - and beyond.

Democrats are well aware of the threat. They have recruited the expertise of Jim Wallis, a liberal evangelical who also is editor of "Sojourners" magazine, to try to sway the so-called value voters into the Democratic tent.

It won't be easy.

According to Election Day exit polling, 78 percent of self-described value voters supported Bush.

"There's nothing like success for motivating value voters," said Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs with the National Association of Evangelicals, a 50-year-old lobbying group. The group's motto -"Cooperation Without Compromise" - underscores the strength of evangelicals in the capital.

Wallis visited with Democratic leaders on the Hill recently to help ease their apprehension about religious language in political speeches. He is heartened that some Democrats are finding the importance of faith and values, but he said he still finds opposition from what he describes as secular fundamentalists.

"Republicans are comfortable with the language, they like the language of faith and values, but often narrow it to one or two issues and then obstruct the application of those same values to where it threatens their agenda," he said.

"Democrats need to recover a moral vocabulary, to put principles ahead of programs. You start with values, not policies. Don't start with policies. Start with values and then say how your policies flow from them."

The Christian Right already understands that idea.

"The vast majority of Americans - not just in Middle America, but all across the country in places other than big cities - live their lives according to very traditional values and they expect their elected officials to share those values," said Gary Schneeberger, Focus on the Family's director of media and constituent communications for the government and public policy division.

"The men and women who returned President Bush to office, elected several new pro-life senators and representatives to Congress and passed 13 state marriage-protection amendments last year are going to watch to see how those who represent them vote on issues like judicial nominations, marriage protection, abortion and stem-cell research. And they are going to hold accountable any lawmaker who thinks he's bigger than the people and what they want."

On the other hand, John Podesta, who served as chief of staff for former President Bill Clinton, noted that a post-election Zogby poll showed 42 percent of respondents believed Iraq was the most important moral issue facing the country. When "greed and materialism" and "poverty and economic justice" are combined, 64 percent ranked those as top moral priorities.

"I think to casual observers, perhaps on both to the left and the right, the results from this last election might suggest that the religious tradition represented by Dr. King has been entirely superseded by the one represented by President Bush," said Podesta, now president and CEO of American Progress.

"That moral vision embraced by those Americans, I think, is one that we sometimes don't hear from when we think of James Dobson or Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell," Podesta said.

Dobson, Focus on the Family's former leader, who stepped down to support Bush's campaign, has drawn up a list of demands for Congress. If his demands are not met, he said, he would bring retribution against vulnerable Democratic candidates, potentially ousting them.

The debate about values that will flow with fury during through the 2006 midterms and into the 2008 presidential elections is important beyond demographics, Wallis said.

"It's important for deeper reasons about the moral values that have to be brought to bear on political life because there really is good and evil in this world. There is right and wrong in our public life. Everything must not just be reduced to a battle for power between the right and the left."


Philip Elliott writes for the Evansville Courier and Press in Indiana.
Scripps Howard News Service

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