Frank Rich takes a look at who is the real winner in the moral values race.
There’s only one problem with the storyline proclaiming that the country swung to the right on cultural issues in 2004. Like so many other narratives that immediately calcify into our 24/7 media’s conventional wisdom, it is fiction. Everything about the election results – and about American culture itself – confirms an inescapable reality: John Kerry’s defeat notwithstanding, it’s blue America, not red, that is inexorably winning the culture war, and by a landslide. Kerry voters who have been flagellating themselves since Election Day with a vengeance worthy of “The Passion of the Christ” should wake up and smell the Chardonnay.
The blue ascendancy is nearly as strong among Republicans as it is among Democrats. Those whose “moral values” are invested in cultural heroes like the accused loofah fetishist Bill O’Reilly and the self-gratifying drug consumer Rush Limbaugh are surely joking when they turn apoplectic over MTV. William Bennett’s name is now as synonymous with Las Vegas as silicone. The Democrats’ Ashton Kutcher is trumped by the Republicans’ Britney Spears. Excess and vulgarity, as always, enjoy a vast, bipartisan constituency, and in a democracy no political party will ever stamp them out.
When Robert Novak writes after the election that “the anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, socially conservative agenda is ascendant, and the G.O.P. will not abandon it anytime soon,” you have to wonder what drug he is on. The abandonment began at the convention. Sam Brownback, the Kansas senator who champions the religious right, was locked away in an off-camera rally across town from Madison Square Garden. Prime time was bestowed upon the three biggest stars in post-Bush Republican politics: Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Arnold Schwarzenegger. All are supporters of gay rights and opponents of the same-sex marriage constitutional amendment. Only Mr. McCain calls himself pro-life, and he’s never made abortion a cause. None of the three support the Bush administration position on stem-cell research. When the No. 1 “moral values” movie star, Mel Gibson, condemned the Schwarzenegger-endorsed California ballot initiative expanding and financing stem-cell research, the governor and voters crushed him like a girlie-man. The measure carried by 59 percent, which is consistent with national polling on the issue.
If the Republican party’s next round of leaders are all cool with blue culture, why should Democrats run after the red? Received Washington wisdom has it that the only Democrat who will ever be able to win a national election must be a cross between Gomer Pyle and Billy Sunday – a Scripture-quoting Sun Belt exurbanite whose loyalty to Nascar does not extend to Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was fined last month for saying a four-letter word on television.
According to this argument, the values voters the Democrats must pander to are people like Cary and Tara Leslie, archetypal Ohio evangelical “Bush votes come to life” apotheosized by The Washington Post right after Election Day. The Leslies swear by “moral absolutes,” support a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and mostly watch Fox News. Mr. Leslie has also watched his income drop from $55,000 to $35,000 since 2001, forcing himself, his wife and his three young children into the ranks of what he calls the “working poor.” Maybe by 2008 some Democrat will figure out how to persuade him that it might be a higher moral value to worry about the future of his own family than some gay family he hasn’t even met.
Now that the Republicans own the moral values issue, it will be interesting to see how they handle it and the firebrands who are expecting so much from them (see previous post). Ginger, get the popcorn!