Tilt to Right on Morality Seen as Risky for Gore

Michael Pugliese debsian at pacbell.net
Sat Aug 19 20:54:33 PDT 2000

Tilt to Right on Morality Seen as Risky for Gore (washingtonpost.com)http://washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A57112-2000Aug 19.html By Thomas B. Edsall Washington Post Staff Writer Sunday, August 20, 2000; Page A08 LOS ANGELES – Vice President Gore has sent a strong message that he intends to challenge George W. Bush for Republican-leaning "moral values" voters through his selection of Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), his support for blocking a fundraiser at the Playboy Mansion and his efforts to separate himself from President Clinton. This strategy involves risks, according to partisans on both sides. On the most straightforward level, the tilt of the Gore-Lieberman campaign toward the moral right threatens to shift the public debate onto terrain inherently unfavorable to Democrats by asking voters to decide which party is better equipped to handle issues of morality, a question on which voters tend to prefer the GOP. "They are swimming upstream," said Matthew Dowd, polling director for the Bush campaign, noting that among those voters who place a top priority on "the moral crisis" or on "restoring moral values," Bush has as much as a 40 percentage-point lead. A second, more subtle, problem is the threat that a hard-line moral stance poses to the carefully nurtured Democratic support built up over three decades among millions of voters who fall outside the scope of the traditional nuclear family – single mothers, gays, the divorced. Many of these voters stress tolerance over judgmental politics. One of the major Democratic gains under Clinton has been to find ways to mesh winning campaign strategies with a continued commitment to social liberalism. Steadily changing attitudes about sex, marriage, family, divorce, homosexuality and gender, as the women's rights movement and sexual revolution of the 1960s have become institutionalized in society, have been crucial to the success of Democrats in this once highly troublesome arena of politics. In 1996, the Clinton campaign found that one of the best predictors of whether a voter was likely to vote for Clinton or Republican Robert J. Dole was the voter's response to five questions, all directly related to the sexual revolution: Do you believe homosexuality is morally wrong? Do you ever personally look at pornography? Is religion very important in your life? Would you look down on someone who had an affair while they were married? Do you believe sex before marriage is morally wrong? Respondents who gave liberal or – in the case of religion, secular – answers were decisively more likely to vote for Clinton, while those who gave conservative answers in three or more cases were very likely Dole voters. Along similar lines, voters who are single or divorced are far more likely to be Democrats than those who are married, and those who rarely go to church are more likely to be Democrats than regular churchgoers. Gore has not shown the same instinctive knack as Clinton to appeal to voters along these divisions shaped by religion and attitudes about the sexual revolution. And the scandal over Clinton's affair with Monica S. Lewinsky has severely compromised Gore's ability to capitalize on Clinton's success. "We were in the midst of a transformation on the issues of the sexual revolution that Clinton's problems put on hold, a transformation of trying to deal with family, moral values and changing sexual mores that Clinton himself had set off," a Democratic strategist said. "Lewinsky was a major setback to the Democrats' ability to lead this transformation." Gore, then, has been caught between a Democratic constituency inclined toward liberal stands on sexual issues and the need to separate himself from the Clinton sex scandal. The conflicting pressures on Gore resulted in the spectacle of Democratic Party officials, acting with the full approval of the Gore campaign, successfully barring Rep. Loretta Sanchez (Calif.), who is Hispanic, from holding a fundraiser at the Playboy Mansion. "I am sorely disappointed by the congresswoman's decision to proceed with he r Playboy fundraiser. We have done everything we can and now we have no alternative but to take action. Loretta Sanchez will not be speaking at the Democratic National Convention next week," Democratic National Chairman Joe Andrew said before Sanchez agreed to move the fundraiser. The party's core base of support among social liberals has, in turn, been shaken by Gore's selection of Lieberman, a politician known for his harsh moral criticism of Clinton and for his repeated denunciation of sex and violence in the entertainment industry. "The Democrats are in as much danger as the Republicans were in saying 'we are not mean anymore' of alienating Christian conservatives and hard-liners. By the same token, Democrats run the risk of alienating real liberals," said Andrew Kohut, of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, adding his belief that the losses are not likely to be high. This view is by no means unanimous. "This isn't the Democratic Party I grew up with," said John Burton, president of the California state Senate, responding to the Playboy controversy. "It smacks more of fascism than the Democratic Party. What are they going to do next, burn books?" In a column headlined "As Bubba the Clown Departs, the Hour of the Prig Descends," essayist Ron Rosenbaum wrote that "the idiot virtue-crats running Al Gore's convention" initiated "a stupid and brutal campaign that ultimately succeeded in browbeating Representative Sanchez into submission." James R. Petersen, co-author of "The Century of Sex: Playboy's History of the Sexual Revolution" and a writer for the magazine, was even more outspoken: "The Democrats have enjoyed the hormonal rush of being the liberals of the last century. To borrow a page from Dan Quayle's playbook strikes me as suicide. . . . The sexual revolution was put to a vote in the impeachment and the sexual revolution won." Conversely, David Smith, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign Fund, gave the Gore campaign a pass: "They are exercising discipline in their messaging," Smith said. "The Democratic platform and the position of the vice president are very clearly in support of treating gay and lesbian people equally. This is the most inclusive platform yet." Pollster Stan Greenberg, an adviser to the Gore campaign and key strategist in Clinton's 1992 bid, said the Playboy Mansion controversy and the tensions over Lieberman's harsh critique of the entertainment industry are a part of a long-term political and social accommodation to the changes in the workplace, the role of women and in personal behavior wrought by a movement begun in the 1960s. "If you look at the period from the '60s, the Democrats came down on side of individual liberty and in that earlier period the party was associated with the excesses, and the Republicans were able to ride their opposition to the sexual revolution to a national majority," Greenberg said. In more recent years, he said, "the public has made an accommodation to the sexual revolution," and "the Democrats are much closer to where the public is." While Republicans have the edge on moral values, Greenberg said the Gore-Lieberman ticket is "playing on Democratic turf because we will advance both tolerance and openness, and a commitment to family. Republican turf is an emphasis on family and morality with an emphasis on opportunity. We are doing both." Democrats, more than Republicans, are actively engaged in working out the tensions between "the choices women have achieved" through the women's rights movement, abortion rights and improved contraception, and public concern over cultural and social forces that "threaten values and erode strong families," Greenberg said. Social liberalism, most especially support for abortion rights, has become a pillar of the Democratic Party as the demographic composition of the nation has changed. Tom W. Smith, director of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, described a host of these demographic trends, including a decline in the percentage of adults who are married from just less than 75 percent in 1972 to 56 percent in 1998; a quadrupling in the percentage of children living with single parents from less than 5 percent to nearly 20 percent; and the halving of once "traditional" families with a working father and stay-at-home mother from 60 percent to 27 percent of married couples with children. The changes in family structure have been accompanied by a major shift in public attitudes and in private behavior, according to Smith. Premarital sex has become commonplace; extramarital births have grown from one in 20 in 1960 to one in three now; the percentage of people saying sex between an unmarried adult man and woman is "always wrong" has dropped to an all-time low of 24 percent, and the percent disapproving of homosexuality has declined steadily. In this changing environment, the Democratic Party has taken the side of the sexual revolution and the GOP the side of the counterrevolution in both "image and reality," Smith said. "If you look at the actual attitudes of people, there is a decided difference. Republicans are more conservative about the family, less in favor of premarital sex, less in favor of [reproductive] choice. Their platforms reflect these differences and so do their organized constituencies: the religious right for Republicans, feminists for the Democrats," Smith said.

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