Voting Out the Mean-Spirited Party

"You saw the idealism, and then you saw people lose a little focus, and you saw the corrupt influences of power affect Republicans." That’s how Rep. John Shadegg of Arizona put it, and he’s right.

"I’m a lifelong Baptist and vote for Democrats. One reason? Democrats are serious about alleviating poverty." That’s what North Carolina basketball coaching legend Dean Smith said in newspaper ads, and he’s partly right.

He’s only partly right because Democrats, although often serious, have been ineffective — and how serious are those who repeatedly choose what sounds good over what is good?

But Republican failures made Coach Smith’s statement look right to many voters. Republicans paid for their inability, despite Congressional majorities, to move ahead a compassionate conservative agenda. They did not advance alternatives to the failed faith that we measure our concern for the poor by the size of our governmental appropriations.

Not to say that poverty fighting was a major issue in the campaign. Certainly Iraq was No. 1, although the election was by no means a mandate to give up. (A New York Times/CBS News Poll just before the election showed 55 percent of Americans wanting to send more troops to Iraq, and 62 percent thinking the United States will have to stay in Iraq beyond two years.)

But we tend to vote for those with whom we feel comfortable — and for many Americans, Republicans over the past five years have once again become the party of corporate suits. That didn’t matter politically as long as folks thought the GOP was leading well concerning national security. Once that bulwark was gone, though, many voters looked to see if there was any other reason to choose Republicans — and concluded that there was not.

Reality eventually trumps image. Karl Rove in the 1990s saw the political potential of compassionate conservatism: It blasted away at stereotypes about mean-spirited Republicans and left many among the warm-hearted feeling that they were not selling out by voting for those their parents had scorned. But the GOP showed it was not serious about alleviating poverty when it did not push through a decentralizing mix of anti-poverty tax credits and vouchers.

By just playing politics it opened the door to campaigns such as that of ordained minister Ted Strickland, who became Ohio’s first Democratic governor in 16 years as he went around quoting Micah’s injunction to do justice and love mercy. Just playing politics made some voters hope they could trust House Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi, who bragged that her party had a 42-member Democratic Faith Working Group.

It’s right that some Republicans lost after they betrayed the principles that brought the GOP to congressional power in 1994 and elected George W. Bush as a compassionate conservative. It’s good that some moderate Democrats won. It’s sad that some good Republicans became collateral damage.

Now congressional Democrats have to govern. Democrats for Life wants the party to change its abortion position and hopes that Bob Casey, Jr., will lead the way — but how will Democrats for Death respond? Will Democratic leaders take seriously evangelical concerns, or will they be like those who last year held a seminar at the University of California, Berkeley entitled, "I Don’t Believe in God, But I Know America Needs a Spiritual Left"?

It will be fascinating to watch Democrats trying to make their tent bigger without alienating their Christophobic base. I hope they succeed, because America could use two parties that respect Biblical belief, so that evangelicals aren’t captive to one. It will be fascinating to see if President Bush will start vetoing spending bills filled with pork and earmarks. I hope he becomes the fighter on domestic policy that he was supposed to be.

I also hope that the new Congress will take to heart the speech departing Sen. Rick Santorum gave late last month. He spoke about America’s need to "come to grips with the terrible fact that we are at war. There is no escape because our enemies are fully committed to our destruction." That reality transcends this election.


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