Democrats Can't Win until Their Politics Are Born Again Soul-searching on the left ... and a softening of the right? Jonathan Freedland Saturday November 6, 2004 The Guardian Question: Which leading Democratic senator was the big loser in Tuesday's American election? Answer: Hillary Rodham Clinton. No one predicted that result. On the contrary, conventional wisdom held that if John Kerry lost the 2004 contest, it could only be good for Ms Clinton. With no Democrat in the White House destined to seek re-election, the path would be clear for a bid of her own in 2008. And yet, far from igniting the Clinton '08 campaign, Tuesday's result may have snuffed it out at birth. For the post-election analysis has revealed that a key factor in Kerry's defeat was a problem for which Hillary Clinton could never be the solution. Asked what single factor played the chief role in determining their choice, some voters cited terrorism, Iraq or the economy - but the greatest number picked "moral values". Translation: faith, flag and family. Cruder translation: God, guns and gays. These are the social, cultural questions that mattered to millions of Americans more than jobs, healthcare or an ongoing war. And this group simply felt George Bush shared their core values while John Kerry did not. It goes deeper than a policy difference. To these conservatives, Kerry seemed to inhabit a different culture. His own advisers confessed one of their greatest regrets was allowing the senator to be photographed windsurfing - a sport of the jet-set elite, rather than the average Joe. Meanwhile Bush - the son of a president and the scion of a New England political dynasty - came on as a man from the heartland: jeans and cowboy hat, complete with a stay-at-home wife who wouldn't look out of place if air-dropped into the 50s. Voters said they felt comfortable with Bush even if they disagreed with him; they said he was like them. This leaves a twin challenge for the Democrats if they are ever to win back power. They need to reconnect with those cultural conservatives, the millions of Americans living in states that turned the map red on Tuesday, in both their values and their way of life. New York senator Hillary Clinton, lawyer, arch-liberal and feminist, could never hope to make that connection. She is every bit as "coastal" - remote from the rural heartland - as Kerry. So Democrats will have to find a candidate who, at the very least, can get a hearing from this vast slice of the electorate. A look at the map, and past experience, suggests it will most likely be a southerner, comfortable speaking about faith. After all, the only Democrats elected in the past 35 years were Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, both southern Baptists. (Expect some early interest in Mark Warner, the charismatic Democratic governor of Virginia.) Finding a messenger is the easy bit. Adjusting the message will be harder. It starts with a long, cold look at the numbers. Nearly one in four of Tuesday's voters were white evangelical or born-again Christians: of those, nearly 80% went for Bush. The president won thumping majorities of all Protestant and Catholic voters. Almost the only religious group that went for Kerry, by three to one, were Jews - who make up just 3% of the electorate. No party that wants power in America can afford to cede this vast demographic - white Christians - to their opponents. Democrats have to learn to speak to them anew. One immediate suggestion, from Bill Clinton's former labour secretary Robert Reich, is to eschew Kerry's technocratic talk, of plans and policies, in favour of the language of morality. Reich believes Democrats can frame left or liberal arguments in terms that will stir people of faith. The party would thunder that it is morally wrong to give tax breaks to the wealthiest; that it is a moral outrage the worst-off are not covered when they fall sick. The civil rights movement of the 1960s, Reich recalls, presented itself precisely this way, as a religious crusade. Martin Luther King was a churchman. Black Christians have never stopped talking about poverty and injustice in religious terms; now other Democrats may have to follow. America is a religious nation: tapping into morality is not just smart - it is essential. But that still leaves the stubborn heart of the problem. What are Democrats to do with the fact that, on some questions, their own deeply held values simply clash with those of the emerging conservative majority? Here the Democrats of 2004 might look to the Labour party of 1983. The beating Labour took that year began a long, painful process of realisation that the party's traditional economic socialism was out of step with the British people. Over the next 14 years, it dropped what had once been a defining set of beliefs in order to persuade Britons that Labour was not alien, but saw the world the way they did. Should Democrats now embark on a similar process, changing their stance on abortion or gay rights or guns? Most would balk at the very thought: if they did that, they would surely cease to be themselves. Besides, why would "red state" Americans vote for Republicanism Lite when they could have the real thing? Even so, change will have to come. Democrats might have to stake out new positions on these divisive questions, positions that, while still liberal, nudge the party closer to the mainstream. Take gay rights. Many, perhaps most, Americans would now say they favour equality between homosexuals and heterosexuals. But most draw the line at gay marriage, regarding that as a step too far. On abortion, even those who support a woman's right to choose find late-term, "partial-birth" terminations too much to tolerate. On these and other questions, Democrats may have to meet their fellow Americans halfway. They have made these shifts before. Michael Dukakis was rejected in 1988 in part because he opposed capital punishment. Four years later Bill Clinton took the opposite line - and he won the White House, twice. Of course, there are some principles that the party could not and should not abandon. Here the Democrats will have to do the toughest job of all: change people's minds. What Tuesday proved is how mammoth a task that will be. firstname.lastname@example.org Note from AA: This is the same Guardian (ultra-liberal U.K. publication)that sent letters to people in Ohio trying to influence them to vote for Kerry.