Passion or Positioning

Robin Toner has front page analysis in the New York Times today on how Dems are seeking the “middle on social issues.” Most of this is common sense. Dems will control agenda in House and use that to block votes on issues like gay marriage or partial birth abortion that force a conflict between their principles and the majority of Americans. They’ll focus – if they have any sense at all – on bread and butter, kitchen table issues, and take on entrenched corporate interests like Big Pharma for Americans. They’ll put their faith and values on display.

Toner suggests that Democrats will try to avoid what they say was the downfall of Republicans – allowing their right-wing base to isolate them from majority opinion.

There’s the rub. Politics is driven by passion – by people passionate about causes. The passionate provide the volunteers, the energy, the emotion to engage citizens. That was true when unions were organizing, when the civil rights and women’s movements were mobilizing. It is true on the right and on the left.

Movements scare politicians, because they often represent a mobilized minority seeking to change opinion, not merely reflect it. Leaders also must mold opinion, not simply be weathervanes, shifting in the wind.

Democrats in the House can control the agenda of the Congress, but not the agenda of the streets. Smart, progressive leaders will understand that they must help mold opinion on behalf of progressive movements, not against them. The Democratic task is not to stiff arm pro-choice groups and ignore the concerns of women in a country in which abortion is not yet “legal, safe and rare.” The Democratic task is to make progress through reforms that help counter conservative gains on the abortion issue, and provide women with their basic rights. It isn’t a victory to shelve the gay marriage issue. Democrats must find ways to frame the debate to accelerate the country’s growing acceptance of gays and lesbians, while supporting this new civil rights movement.

Governing “from the center” – simply reflecting public opinion – is relatively easy, but it is neither good policy nor good politics. It doesn’t produce the reforms needed to make America better. And it doesn’t engage the passionate reformers vital to any political party’s success. Republicans lost their majority not because they catered to the Christian right. They lost their majority because conservatives failed – in Iraq, on the economy, on health care, on keeping college affordable, on cleaning up their own house.

And that’s the final lesson. Governing from the center – as opposed to pushing hard for passionately held reforms – breeds cynicism. Politicians learn to scorn the very voters whose opinions they pander to. Cynicism in turns breeds corruption: “the center” turns out to be best represented by corporate lobbyists bearing checks.

Democrats would be well advised to stop bragging about their clever positioning, and stay focused on what they are prepared to fight for with a passion – against the war in Iraq, for affordable health care, for basic civil rights, for an America that is more just, more democratic, and more secure. And to go beyond rhetoric, they better pick some big fights designed to engage people in motion, not assume that a bipartisan moorage provides them with shelter from the storms. Luckily for them, George Bush may give them no choice as he pursues his debacle in Iraq.


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