I have a lot of problems with Amy Sullivan’s recent piece about the opportunities allegedly presented by David Kuo’s new book. First of all, I reject her entire premise that Democratic politicians don’t reach out to religious believers, and since she never mentions the names of prominent Democrats who treat believers with contempt it’s impossible to evaluate her claims. Second, Sullivan’s claim that liberal bloggers have “spent so much time fear-mongering about American theocracy that a book illustrating the opposite simply makes no sense to them” is belied by the fact that what is surely the most-discussed liberal book of the second Bush era makes the well-known case that evangelicals are being played for suckers by the business elite that really holds the power in the GOP. Kuo’s revelations aren’t so shocking as to be incomprehensible to knowledgeable liberals, but are rather banal.
But my biggest problem with Sullivan’s argument continues to be that she’s frustratingly vague about how, exactly, Democrats should “reach out to disaffected evangelicals.” My understanding is that she’s not saying that Democrats should sacrifice core principles such as reproductive freedom. But if that’s the case, I don’t know what more Democrats can do. Sullivan seems to think that there are large numbers of voters who 1)like Democratic economic policy more, 2)vote Republican because of social issues, but 3)would stop voting Republican on social issues, not because of substantive shifts in Democratic policy but because of shifts in rhetoric. I suspect that these voters could fit in a good-sized walk-in closet. I think most voters who vote on cultural principle care about substantive positions, and with the Roberts and Alito homeruns they’re being rational to vote Republican no matter how much Karl Rove disdains them.
Another point to keep in mind is that a concern for social justice doesn’t necessarily translate into support for Democratic economic policy. Consider this from the recent New Yorker profile of Michael Gerson, the Bush speechwriter often cited as a true “compassionate conservative”:
Gerson defends Bush’s tax cuts, which the President’s critics believe not only favor those with the highest incomes but have also left less money for important domestic programs; Gerson believes that free markets and free trade are the best means of lifting people out of poverty, and that lower taxes stimulate both. “The part of Mike I have the most trouble understanding, perhaps because we simply disagree, is how he can square his support for pretty substantial spending for the very poorest among us with a defense of Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest people,” Dionne said. “Maybe Mike just buys supply-side economics in a way that I don’t, but most supply-siders don’t think like Mike.”
The fact is that most Republican evangelicals are strongly committed to Republican policy positions, and it’s condescending to think that they can be persuaded by subtle rhetorical shifts (and Sullivan concedes at one point that depressing turnout is more likely than actually convincing the religious right to vote Democratic.) What Democrats can do to broaden their base–run more socially conservative candidates in more conservative states, and claim that religious values support progressive goals and solutions–they’re already doing. So I just don’t see what talking more about David Kuo is supposed to accomplish.