Losing Their Religion

Some Democrats believe the party should turn away from its secular history

BY Scott Goodstein

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The Democrats’ big loss on Election Day has brought on much hand wringing. Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), for example, blamed at least a portion of Kerry’s defeat on San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsome’s push for gay marriage.

The debate over whether the Democrats could win more voters by moving the party further to the right or by becoming the opposition party is just starting. The party’s future direction will be clarified in January or early February when the 440 members of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) vote in a new party chair to replace Terry McAuliffe, who has served for four years—and through two presidential election losses.

Sides already are being drawn between those who believe a more thorough religious appeal is needed and those who argue the party should maintain its historic secular approach.

The potential candidates include: Simon Rosenberg, the founder of Joe Lieberman’s New Democratic Network (www.newdem.org), which pushes a values-based message; Harold Ickes, a leader of America Coming Together and the Media Fund, which created many of the opposition ads in this election (a longtime Clinton operative and chair of Hillary Clinton’s PAC, his candidacy raises the question of whether Hillary is positioning herself for a 2008 run); Denver Mayor Wellington Webb; Al Gore’s campaign manager Donna Brazille (she has grassroots support from her longtime party experience and name recognition as a political commentator); Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, a moderate on gun laws and a Midwestern populist; and Howard Dean.

The outcome of the DNC election will determine the relationship between the party and the dozens of activist groups that evolved this campaign season. The millions of members of the 527 issue education groups which operated independently of the Democratic Party, clearly expressed their views for more progressive policies.

The Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) Web site (www.ndol.org) argues that the party needs to resolve the “moral values” and trust gap between Democrats and Republicans. “Democrats got clobbered,” the DLC says. “We need a heartland strategy to go with a positive message that reaches the heart as well as the wallet.”

But Democrats need only go back four years to understand how perilous a more religious-based approach could be. In the first test of a regrouped Democratic Party following Al Gore’s 2000 presidential loss, a special election was held to replace the deceased Rep. Norman Sisisky (D-Va.), a long time congressman from Pat Robertson’s neck of the state. The Democrats attempted to out-religion the religious right by running television ads proclaiming their candidate would return prayer to school and bring more religion to government programs. The candidate—Louise Lucas—lost to the right-wing Republican 52 to 48 percent.


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Scott Goodstein, who has spent the last 10 years managing campaigns, is political director for Punk Voter.

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