Political Animal


May 14, 2012 10:18 AM No More “Enemy Turf”

By Ed Kilgore

A perenially important political challenge that’s been associated with the Washington Monthly for years (and that also happens to be one of my own favorite crusades) is an effort to convince progressives not to concede important segments of the U.S. population to the opposition on grounds that they represent some sort of inherent “enemy turf.” Yes, certain demographic categories may be “lost” to conservatives if you insist on a winner-takes-all definition, and no, aggressively pursuing support among such voters isn’t worth it if it involves abandoning key principles or essentially adopting the opposition’s point of view. But reducing the margin of defeat on “hostile ground” is often achievable simply by paying attention and not wilfully repelling voters, and in the end a vote is a vote whether it comes from a segment of the electorate that progressives are “winning” or “losing.”

There are growing signs that progressives in general, and the Obama campaign in particular, are “getting it.”

Back in 2003, the Monthly published a much-discussed article by Amy Sullivan entitled “Do Democrats Have a Prayer?” that argued the Donkey Party was unnecessarily sacrificing moderate-to-liberal religious voters—and even some nonreligious voters impressed by the moral clarity of faith-grounded statements of principle—by refusing to engage with conservatives claiming a monopoly on the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Over this last weekend the self-same Sullivan penned an op-ed in the Washington Post noting how aggressively Barack Obama is challenging the assumptions of conservatives and secular MSM observers alike that the only religious perspective on same-sex marriage is one of horror and hostility:

Obama cited several reasons for his support for gay marriage, including conversations with U.S. troops, his family and his staff. But his assertion that his views on same-sex marriage come from — not despite — his Christian faith marks a shift in U.S. politics. Democratic politicians now unabashedly cite religion when making their case, and GOP leaders sometimes find themselves in the unusual position of justifying — rather than merely stating — their religious claims.

Sullivan cites the recent difficulties encountered by Paul Ryan in reconciling his supposedly Catholic worldview with his admiration for Ayn Rand and his disdain for any concept of “social justice.” He wouldn’t have had to bother squaring these circles if he was not being challenged by religiously-inspired progressives critics, who are in turn keeping pressure on the Catholic bishops to object to Ryan’s more outrageous claims that you exhibit love for the poor by denying them food stamps.

After years of pretending that the culture wars were a matter of religious views lined up against secular beliefs, politicians are recognizing what average Americans knew all along. A majority of Americans now believe that there is more than one way to get to heaven, pollsters report. Our political discussions finally reflect that there’s also more than one answer to the question: “What would Jesus do?”

Pretty simple, but it’s taken a good while for that two-front challenge to the conservative monopoly on religious expression to emerge.

On a different front, in 2007 the Monthly published a colloquoy in 2007 of advice from recent military veterans on how Democrats could improve their performance among “military voters”—another constituency often conceded to the GOP as “enemy turf.”

Again, the advice to compete rather than to surrender seems to have sunk in, at least with the Obama campaign, according to a WaPo article over the weekend by Amy Gardner:

Republicans have long defined themselves in part on their hawkish stance on national security issues and their popularity among the military and veterans. But the makeup of the nation’s armed forces is changing, and Obama hopes to win over veterans by appealing to the same subgroups that propelled him to victory in 2008: women, minorities and young people.
“There’s a different face of the American veteran now,” said Lauren Zapf, 30, a Navy veteran who served in the Persian Gulf and who spoke recently at a gathering in Northern Virginia for Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Timothy M. Kaine. “The president’s stance on social policies, his work with military families, what he was doing with policy in both Iraq and Afghanistan — I appreciate that.”

Progress has already been made since 2004, when Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, who tried to make his autobiography a self-evident case for his interest in the “military vote,” succumbed to “swift-boating.”

Obama lost veterans nationally in 2008, as Democrats usually do. But he won those under age 60, a better result than Sen. John F. Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran, achieved four years earlier. Today, Obama is making a significant push in battleground states with large military installations, such as North Carolina and Colorado.

Aside from recognizing the increasing diversity of the military and of military families, the Obama campaign is taking advantage of Republican mistakes, not just in terms of the GOP’s horrific record on undertaking and mismanaging “wars of choice,” but its frequent indifference to the needs of veterans, notes Gardner:

The [Obama] campaign believes that veterans, meanwhile, offer the president a chance to outperform his numbers from four years ago — and perhaps even make up for some of the ground he could lose elsewhere.
One of Obama’s central advantages is that he no longer faces a decorated war hero, Sen. John McCain, who as the Republican nominee in 2008 characterized Obama as a political neophyte with no foreign policy experience. Across the nation, McCain won veterans by a 10-point margin— one of the few voting groups he claimed handily.
Now Romney is the foreign policy novice. And the Obama team is doing all it can to draw a contrast between the two men’s records. Advisers point to Romney’s suggestion, on Veterans Day, that Veterans Affairs health-care programs be privatized. They note that his 59-point economic proposal doesn’t mention veterans once. And they make fun of him for calling Russia the nation’s greatest “geopolitical foe.”

Mitt Romney won’t be able to tout his own non-existent military service, and he won’t be landing any jets on an aircraft carrier, either. But that might not matter if the Obama campaign were not so confident about its ability to make a positive case for the superior appeal of Democrats to the values and interests of “military voters.”

A vote’s a vote; reducing unnecessary losses on “enemy turf” has enormous political value; and progressives need not concede, explicitly or (by silence or evasion) implicitly, religious or military voters. It’s good to see these simple lessons are being taken to heart.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • c u n d gulag on May 14, 2012 10:40 AM:

    Seeing how Bush gutted the VA while creating more and more veterans, it's not surprising that Obama's catching on with vets.
    Especially since he's insisted on improvements in VA care.

    And considering how the religious right has made their fear and hatred of gays and women, their icky parts, and their choices, and the beating down on the poor and old, the centerpieces of their crusade, it's not surprising that the non-Dominionist Christians, are coming around to the Democrats, too.

    But it's not fair to criticize Mitt, as someone who's not familiar with war and foreign policy.

    Mitt did service during the Vietnam War praying and proselytizing in, and around, the Chalet's of France.

    And NOT ONE Viet Cong MIG made it into French air-space.

  • Ron Byers on May 14, 2012 10:45 AM:

    I have wondered for many years why progressive politicians gave up the "religious" vote without a fight.

    Damn, I am a progressive because of my religious views. So are most of the progressives I know. Yep, there are quite a few proud and loud atheists in the progressive community, but Ayn Rand was a loud and proud atheist and Jesus was pretty progressive. The Pope I grew up under was a really well known proponent of economic justice. So where the sisters who taught me religion and the priests at my parish.

  • Henry Plantagenet on May 14, 2012 11:05 AM:

    The big one is the South. The Democrats have given up on most of the South, and it's foolish. I've been saying it ever since 1996 when Clinton came within 5-6 points of taking Texas even though he had written off the state. Nominate some good ol' boys like Brian Schweitzer in 2016, build up the Democratic party machine in Texas, Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee, get blacks and Hispanics and liberals and moderates working on campaigns down there...and the GOP will never win another election.

  • Rick B on May 14, 2012 11:20 AM:

    One reason the national Democrats have given up on Texas is that Texas has been a major source of funds for the national Democratic Party. They come in, collect $millions, then use them elsewhere is states "more likely to be winnable."

    One result of that is that the Texas Democratic Party fields severely underfunded candidates against the idiots like Ron Paul and Louie Gohmert.

    Of course the Republicans have concentrated funds into Texas. Tom DeLay successfully knocked out four Democratic Texas Congressmen and replaced them with Republicans.

    This year Texas has an additional four congressmen. What does that do to the House of Representative? The Department of Justice successfully sued to force the Texas Legislature to rewrite the districts that otherwise would have created four more Republicans. Now it's only two - maybe.

    Every major city in Texas votes Democratic. It's the rural hicks who dominate the state through their evangelical churches and millionaire money. The national Democratic Party is bleeding the state for money that would convert it to a Democratic majority state.

  • Rugosa on May 14, 2012 11:25 AM:

    C U N D, you always give me a laugh! I had a friend in college who joined the Coast Guard to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War. He always claimed that he successfully defended the US - not one Viet Cong ship managed to invade New England's waters while he was a Coastie!

  • SadOldVet on May 14, 2012 11:30 AM:

    To state the equivalent of what Ed has written in less complicated language...

    If you never try, you will never succeed.

    The state level dumbocrap leadership and the national level DLC/DINO types keep putting their backing and money into the DLC/DINO type of candidates and they keep losing to 'real' repukes. If you never try to run progressives as democratic party backed candidates, then progressives will seldom succeed (go Elizabeth).

  • SteveT on May 14, 2012 11:41 AM:

    I am no longer amazed or dismayed by the Democrats' ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

    When John McCain announced his opposition to increasing veterans' benefits because he feared that it would encourage people to leave the military, it should have killed his credibility (and the Republicans') with veterans and active duty military. Or it could have -- IF Democrats had made an issue out of it. But they didn't.

    Mitt Romney and his fellow chickenhawk Republicans want to increase our troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan, AND want to attack Iran and Syria. But Democrats haven't said much about it to a war-weary electorate.

    Maybe Obama will be a new kind of Democrat in this campaign -- one who hits Republicans HARD and without mercy in all the areas where they're vulnerable.

    But I've spent the last three years watching Obama go hat-in-hand to Congressional Republicans and pseudo-Republican Blue Dogs and say in a soft voice, "Please sirs, I'd like some more." So I'm not optimistic.

  • William Harris on May 14, 2012 11:46 AM:

    On the religious front: don't underestimate your contributions, Ed. In those ugly days post-2004, your matter-of-fact faith, along with that of Sullivan and a few others including an up-and-coming state senator from Illinois helped nurture the link between faith and progressive politics. Both articulate a language of hope that is larger than individualism, or the temporary appeals of self-interest.

    Whether we talk about Ayn Rand, Romney's always-switching policy nihilism, austerity economics, or shrinking back from our schools and universities, the conservative turn to the local, private, individual is a turning away from hope. it speaks of a failure of imagination and a settling for second best. Faith and progressive politics alike speak not only of hope for oneself, but of a hope for others, for our communities. And it is hope that lets individuals pick up the generations-spanning task of justice.

  • DisgustedWithItAll on May 14, 2012 12:26 PM:

    Dems ought to use religion to appeal to voters on climate change and human-caused global warming, too. How many faith-based voters think it's a convincing argument to assume their creator would advocate irreparably harming or completely destroying the planet for future generations.

    I've never understood timidity on this issue and effectively ceding the argument to pollutocrats. The polluters aren't going to be giving big cash to Dems anyway.

    (Fuckin' captcha)

  • Pol on May 14, 2012 12:56 PM:

    Disgusted-- the Bible says the next time God destroys the earth, it will be by fire. I figure the Bible thumpers think global warming and riding temperatures might be part of the plan.

  • Pol on May 14, 2012 12:58 PM:

    Sorry -- rising temperatures !

  • CharlieM on May 14, 2012 1:28 PM:

    So faith-grounded statements have the advantage of "moral clarity"? Really?
    Amy barked up the wrong tree then and now 9 years later she's still trying.
    What the right thing to do doesn't need any silly "moral clarity" brought about by some revealed faith-based statement. Amy misses the point. We see what faith-based justifications have wrought - witness the Republican party.
    Progressive ideals don't need a faith-based grounding. To assert this is to assert that "moral clarity" (whatever exactly that means) flows only from a faith-based perspective.
    Progressive ideals should be obvious and stand on their own. If they require some religious blathering for validity, then this becomes an admission that, well, maybe they're not the best thing to hold to to beging with.
    Start making religion a core part of progressive ideals and (in the end) you're just going to get into a spitting contest with conservatives over "what would Jesus do".

  • HMDK on May 14, 2012 5:04 PM:

    CharlieM, thank you for putting it so eloquently.
    I'd have gone with: "Fuck you, the Bible and any other holy book is obviously a free-for-all". People of all different races and beliefs are using their holy books, their beliefs in what comes "after", to justify whatever they want to do anyway." Hey, how about this:
    Stop worrying about your faiths and your reputations, stop worrying about heaven and hell, and start worrying about actual people. At least we know they exist.

    And by the way, Ed:
    Amy Sullivan, are you kidding?
    Sullivan's not a journalist, but a joke.
    And it ought to be a really funny one,
    but guys like you won't let us laugh.

  • CJColucci on May 14, 2012 5:52 PM:

    Ed, you probably weren't around here when Amy Sullivan last visited. Many of us begged her to tell us what, specifically, she had in mind, and what, specifically, she wanted Democratic candidates -- most of them, like daily-mass-going Catholic John Kerry, perfectly orthodox Christians -- to do. Other than hire Amy in some sort of outreach job, that is.
    She wouldn't tell us. She wouldn't say what positions we ought to take on any issues that might win a larger share of the religious vote. She had next to nothing to say about what the candidates themselves ought to be doing -- which was no surprise because the party has never put up anyone who wasn't some kind of Christian (other than Joe Leiberman). Some, to be sure, were pretty inept at riffing on biblical themes that could illuminate and justify their policy positions, but they were inept campaigners generally, which we already knew. She told us, at great length, that religious voters correctly saw that the Democratic Party was more hospitable to non-religious sorts than the GOP, but she wouldn't tell us what to do with this information we already knew. Except, maybe, to tell the secular Democrats to STFU. And she wouldn't even say that in plain English. To paraphrase Lincoln's Cooper Union speech question, what will satisfy the religious voter? Amy wouldn't tell us.

  • Matthew G. Saroff on May 14, 2012 6:37 PM:

    First, there is no such thing as Judeo Christian tradition.

    Judaism is of Middle Eastern origins, while Christianity as we know it today is Western (The Christian bible is written in Greek for a reason)

    If you want to talk honestly about commonality between monotheistic religions, you have to include Islam in the mix.

    If you want to talk about religious people of European origin, feel free, but Judeo-Christian is nothing but a code word for "White People."

    Second, Amy Sullivan has been selling her "God" thing for over a decade. It gets old.

    Third, and I am speaking as a Jew who believes in God, Obama's "Outreach" to religion has a distinctly anti-atheist and anti-agnostic flavor to it which is simply wrong.

  • Doug on May 14, 2012 7:47 PM:

    To start of with, the whole "secularism vs religion" debate is hogwash, plain and simple! It's merely a tactic by Republicans to "divide and conquer" yet another group in the national polity (thank you, Gov. Walker for your honesty!). Does any state Democratic Party require oaths of "secularism" for membership? No. Does the national Party? No. What IS required is that policy supported by Democrats is made to meet perceived SECULAR needs. You may support, or oppose that perceived need for any secular OR religious reasons you may have. However, what you CANNOT do is make secular policy decisions SOLELY in order to meet what you deem is a religious requirement.
    I get the impression that many of these "religious" moderates/progressives, feel the Democrats just aren't sucki...I mean, they're feeling left out. After all, look at how the Republicans are kow-towing to THEIR religious groups.
    Yeah, just look...

  • Nynia Chance on May 14, 2012 11:43 PM:

    Progressive ideals don't need to have a religious foundation, but that doesn't mean they're incompatible with them. We have to pull ourselves out of the Us vs Them trap Doug describes on the hogwash of the "secularism vs religion" debate, even if there's those on the "other side" that won't join us. There's many on all sides of the fence who are ready to set side those differences and just get to work already on fixing what's busted in our communities.

    I started to write a whole lot more, and it ended up way too long. Started finally using my Salon blog to finish my thoughts: