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Friday, July 16, 2004

Geez, it's just an embarrassment of riches this morning.

You get three for the price of one in today's Washington Post: Howard Kurtz reviews Bush's latest negative ad on Kerry's abortion stance here, and E.J. Dionne gets it right as usual here. (Sorry, subscription only.)

Dionne says the Republicans are "Doing an Atwater on Kerry," and he has a point:

Republican pollster David Winston's helpful definition of the two types of "values" arguments is a good guide to which Atwateresque moves might work this year. There are "values you default to that are appealing to your base, which tend to reinforce an existing belief." And "there are values that are oriented to the middle which tend to be fundamentally optimistic and designed to solve a problem."

Bush risks pushing too hard on the first kind of values issues, as he did on the gay marriage amendment. But in trying to paint Kerry as weak, vacillating and unprepared to lead the country in the war on terrorism, Bush is reaching for a much broader audience. Atwater and his excellent nerds would happily put that argument on a 3-by-5 card. That should be enough to make Kerry's campaign take it seriously.

He even manages to get a nice slap in at W.'s "values":
On the central issue of the campaign, Bush is understandably pushing the Iraq debate away from the specific -- the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, poor postwar planning, etc. -- to the general plane of character and toughness. Bush is using a zinger aimed at all soft and elitist believers in psychobabble. "You can't negotiate with terrorists," Bush says. "You can't sit back and hope that somehow therapy will work and they will change their ways."

Bush even suggests subtly that if the voters toss him from office, they will fail the values test by breaking the country's commitments. The reformist leaders of Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush says, "need to hear from America that they can count on the American people. You see, when we give our word, we keep our word." Message: Keep your country's promise. Vote for Bush.

I'm of the opinion that Bush can flail around all he wants on values. What's going to determine the election is a referendum on his management of the economy and the war in Iraq/on terror. If he can't come up with better results than what we've seen so far, he's going to be toast come November. Still, as I say, Dionne has a point.

I was a little more irked at this story about how Kerry keeps his faith private. The middle of the piece is a pretty fine description of Kerry's faith, which is apparently pretty strong. But the writers feel a need to turn it into a campaign issue by citing insiders (including Amy Sullivan, who's in danger of turning into a one-note writer) to the effect that Kerry's got to talk more about religion, or risk losing the election.

While I agree that it wouldn't kill Kerry to give a speech or an interview about his faith, or to bring the kind of talk he made at the AME convention last week to white audiences, I have at least a couple of problems with this line of thought. Number 1: that 7% of the population knows Kerry is deeply religious comes from a poll taken back in May. Surely that's stale information by now.

Number 2: as noted above, this election is going to be a referendum on the incumbent. Unless there's much harder evidence that Kerry's reticence is costing him support, I wouldn't worry about it. So far, the polls seem to be running in his favor.

Number 3: come on. What you're saying is that you'd like Kerry to become somebody he's not? The man does not like to talk about his faith in public. That's a personal stance, and a cultural one. As EJ Dionne points out above, he's already susceptible to attacks as being a "flip-flopper." Why risk making him out to be a phony?

Enough. I need another cup of coffee and to cut the grass. One more link, with thanks to Aaron Gillies for passing it on: Bill Moyers giving the keynote at Call To Renewal's 2004 Pentecost Conference. As I told Aaron, it's just one more reason I need to subscribe to Sojourners.

[Update]: Amy Sullivan has her own take on her quote here. The most relevant paragraphs:
When I talked to Jim VandeHei for the Washington Post article linked above, my message was that Kerry has correctly placed the focus on works instead of rhetoric. I will always value the individual who walks the walks over someone who merely talks the talk. If you just listen to rhetoric, I said, you might think that Bush is incredibly religious and Kerry is not. But what's more important is to look at what they do.

And that's where my advice to Democrats comes in. Because sometimes voters are going to need some help connecting the dots between their values and the things that John Kerry stands for -- heck, the things nearly the entire Democratic Party stands for. It would be nice if it was all implicit and people simply made the connections for themselves. But sometimes they need someone to say, hey, your religious principles are reflected in our political priorities and policies.

Which leads us to my comments about why Democrats shouldn't just talk about religion in black churches. In my mind, Republicans far too often use religion as a political tool, wielding religious language and appeals in a way that comes across as blatant pandering. Democrats can -- and should -- do better than that. The instinct to keep faith private is, by and large, a correct one. But Democrats who only talk about religion in black churches look just as guilty of pandering as Republicans who wield faith to ply votes.

No one is saying -- and I certainly have not said -- that John Kerry should start talking like an evangelical, that he needs to give testimonials about how much his experience as an altar boy has shaped his life, or that he should start spouting religious language that he doesn't believe just to make voters happy. Drawing on religious principles to explain to some voters why they should support him and his policies, however, is an entirely different matter and one that he and his campaign are starting to pursue in an extremely effective manner.

If what she says about being misunderstood in this article is true, it means that Jim VandeHei is a surprisingly lazy reporter. I've already not been impressed with his coverage of Howard Dean's faith, and this doesn't help any.
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