Dems Must Regain Faith of Religious Voters

August is traditionally referred to in Washington as “the dog days of summer.” That means just about everyone is out of town and it’s so hot that only dogs go outside; the people who are still here aren’t really paying much attention to anything.

And then along comes a story so important that lots of people need to pay attention.

On Aug. 9, the Democracy Corps (run by long-time Democratic Party strategists James Carville, Stan Greenberg and Robert Shrum) released the results of four focus groups held earlier this summer entitled “The Cultural Divide and the Challenge of Winning Back Rural and Red State Voters.”

The premise of the Democracy Corps report is that many white, non-college voters have closed their minds to Democrats because of religious issues, and that the party can reach them only by changing the subject. I disagree. Following such a strategy will ensure that Democrats remain a minority party for a long time.

To quote the study released by Democracy Corps, “These focus groups (conducted in Appleton, Wis., Little Rock, Ark., Louisville, Ky., and Golden, Colo.) powerfully demonstrated that as Democrats seek to redefine their party…they face some hard truths. No matter how disaffected they are over Republican failures in Iraq and here at home, a large chunk of white non-college voters, particularly in rural areas, will remain simply unreachable for Democrats at the national level.”

The study continues, “Furthermore, Republicans and their allies on the right have very effectively used their bully pulpit and their media echo chamber to define Democrats as weak on defense and security issues, hostile to religious faith and the role it plays in most Americans’ lives, enamored with big government solutions to every problem, and obstructionists with no positive agenda or new ideas of their own.”

There is truth in what they say on all these issues, but their solution to the problem is very questionable.

The Washington Post ran a story about this study the next day and Rush Limbaugh devoted a lengthy monologue to the report on his daily radio program. Just about everyone else yawned.

As a Democrat who wants to see his party once again regain majority status, I’m not yawning. I’m paying very close attention. Democrats must find a way to speak to people of faith in this country. We aren’t there yet, but we need to keep trying.

During the time I have been writing this column, no subject has generated as many e-mails as the role of religion and morality in contemporary politics. Democrats believe in God and lead moral lives every bit as much as Republicans do. To suggest the contrary is simply a lie.

But somehow, Republicans have equated any support for gay rights and a woman’s right to choose an abortion with immorality. Democrats have varying views on these subjects, with many Democrats supporting parental notification for an abortion and opposing gay marriage. But often that gets lost in the noise from the extreme right.

I find the recommendations of the Democracy Corps study troubling. They suggest simply changing the subject…hitting hard on such issues as price caps for prescription drugs, Republican ethical failures, Republican cuts in veterans’ benefits, a real energy policy providing for energy conservation, and alternative energy sources and the need to protect workers' pensions. All these are important issues and should be developed by Democratic candidates in 2006 and 2008, but there should be more to this story.

Democracy Corps concludes that rural and red state voters’ “deep-rooted doubts about Democrats and their affinity toward Republicans on cultural issues will prevent them from voting for Democrats for Congress unless Democrats can tap into their frustrations with an aggressive ‘change’ agenda that holds Republicans responsible for the current mess in Washington and presents a Democratic alternative that will deliver measurable results and make a real difference in their personal lives.”

Carville, Greenberg and Shrum are right about the strength of a "change" agenda, but we can’t accept their view about the futility of also attempting to reach large groups of voters on moral grounds. After reviewing almost 2,500 e-mails from readers of this column during the last four months, it is clear to me that many voters want Democrats to speak to them on moral grounds-- even though there are some who will never listen to what a Democrat has to say. I would like to see a "change" agenda. But, I’d also like to see my party make a better case on the role of morality in society. We will never go to the extreme of embracing a far right religious agenda, but we should not concede the votes of the vast majority of people of faith in this country either.

The dog days of summer are ending. My party needs to study the findings of the Democracy Corps focus groups but we shouldn’t give up the fight for the votes of people who believe strongly in a moral nation. Religious faith does not belong to just to one party.

Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.

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