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Whither the Democrats?

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How will the Democratic Party define itself in the Bush era? That’s the subject of an analysis piece by correspondent Adam Clymer in today’s New York Times.  The sound bytes are new, but the arguments go back at least to the party’s fissures of the 1960s.

The Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) wing calls for a business-friendly, pro-defense Party—one that can escape its past in the McGovern-Mondale-Dukakis axis.  At the same time, the progressives fear the Party of Clinton is an “Amen Corner” for the GOP on issues like free trade, labor rights, and affirmative action.  Is there a way out of the impasse for America’s oldest political party?

Clymer points out the Democratic dilemma by quoting former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill’s observation that, in any other country, the Democratic Party would be five parties instead of one.  This is both true and false. It was certainly true in O’Neill’s time—when O’Neill’s caucus was broad enough to include Pat Schroeder, Dick Gephardt, and Phil Gramm.

Since then, however, the national Democratic leadership has made it clear that social issue traditionalists—such as the late Pennsylvania Governor Robert Casey, a heroic pro-life voice—are not welcome on the national scene.  Indeed, Clymer hints at this leftward lurch when he quotes the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s assessment of the 2004 Democratic presidential field.  The New York Senator lamented just before he died that the only display of unity by the Democratic candidates was in support of abortion rights before a “reproductive freedom” interest group.

Moynihan’s lament—by a “pro-choice” Democrat no less—is shared by many, both within and without the Party.  Touchstone magazine goes so far as to call the contemporary Democratic Party the “abortion party” precisely because of the priority this issue has within the Democratic hierarchy.  The Public Interest has questioned whether the Democrats are poised to become the “secularist” party—on the basis of both the party’s platform and the demographic breakdown by religious affiliation in the 2000 presidential contest.

The Democratic Party seems to be broadening on some economic and trade issues, bickering over how tied they should be to unions or to corporate America.  And yet, the Party is nearing ideological hegemony on the inheritance of the sexual revolution—gender feminism, gay rights, and abortion on demand.  That should concern the heirs of Robert Casey—if there are any of them left.

We live in a fearful and cowardly time. The crisis we face is not a crisis of clarity but a crisis of courage.

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About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is Public Theologian at Christianity Today and Director of Christianity Today’s Public Theology Project.

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