Tilt to Right on Morality Seen as Risky for Gore
debsian at pacbell.net
Sat Aug 19 20:54:33 PDT 2000
Tilt to Right on Morality Seen as Risky for Gore
By Thomas B. Edsall
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 20, 2000; Page A08
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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