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 Washington Notebook

July 28, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 27

Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent

Washington 
Correspondent
jfeuerherd@natcath.org
 

"There's going to be a plan [to reach out to the religious community], because there has to be a plan."

John Podesta,
former Clinton White House chief of staff

 

Kerry religious efforts lacking; Democratic left not ready for prime time; Unity is real; Kucinich fears die-hards; Pro-life Dems meet in state house; Social issues downplayed; Brought to you by

By Joe Feuerherd

Second of Two Parts
(Editor's Note: Feuerherd is in Boston at the Democratic National Convention.)

BOSTON -- The Bush campaign's efforts to reach out to religiously motivated voters is well-documented; the Kerry campaign's less so. Maybe that's because there's not much to say about the latter.

"The Kerry folks really do not understand the scope and the complexity of religious communities in America," one activist mainline Protestant minister, a Kerry supporter, told NCR. "They do not take the religious community seriously," said the frustrated Democrat, who said the campaign "trivializes" the concerns of religious progressives and underfunds efforts to organize what he considers a natural Kerry constituency.

By contrast, the Bush campaign is pouring money into energizing and organizing its religious base. The campaign, and the Republican National Committee, has hired denominationally specific "outreach" organizers. They have targeted Catholics in key battleground states. And they are working to reach the four million white evangelicals, natural Bush supporters, who Karl Rove says did not vote in the 2000 election.

The Republicans have gone so far as to ask their Catholic "team leaders" to procure parish directories and membership lists -- they're particularly interested in those who use envelopes to make their Sunday contributions (Washington Notebook, July 21).

Many say the Bush approach is over-the-top -- that it is injecting undue partisanship into tax-exempt houses of worship. Maybe. But there's no denying that it is serious, organized and well-funded.

Some Democrats are not afraid to employ religious language and moral themes in their rhetoric. "We worship an awesome God in the Blue [Democratic-leaning] States," keynote speaker Barack Obama told the Democratic convention July 27. The Illinois senatorial candidate criticized those who "use faith as a wedge issue to divide us."

Meanwhile, the Kerry campaign has has what?

Kerry spokesperson Allison Dobson notes that the campaign's religious outreach effort organized a series of "service projects" in communities around the country the weekend before the Boston convention. She directs a reporter to www.johnkerry.com for details. In the sparse links devoted to "People of Faith for Kerry-Edwards," there is no mention of those efforts.

The Kerry campaign, says Dobson, aims to secure the votes of one million voters who "self-identify" as being motivated by their religious faith. Details here too are scant, with Dobson saying the campaign is using exit polls from the last election to identify and motivate this constituency.

The campaign does have three staffers devoted to outreach to the faith community, though its lead operative, Mara Vanderslice, was muzzled by the campaign in June after William Donohue, the president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, labeled her a "a far left-wing activist who has spoken at rallies held by the notoriously anti-Catholic group ACT UP."

In a country where 90 percent of the people express a belief in God, where 70 percent say religion is "very important" to them, and where overwhelming numbers say that a president should be religious, what should the Kerry forces be doing?

First, there's the candidate.

John Kerry's ability, or lack thereof, to articulate policy positions within a moral framework is key, former Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta told a July 27 Wesley Theological Seminary symposium on "The God Gap in Presidential Politics." Kerry's at a disadvantage, said Podesta, because "he comes from a tradition that does not wear [religion] on its sleeve." Yet, he continued, media coverage of religion focuses on "a relatively narrow range of issues" -- abortion and gay marriage foremost among them. Podesta said that Kerry and Democrats generally need to employ religious and moral language as they discuss issues of war, health care and the economy. The danger is in appearing "inauthentic" -- being perceived as employing a last minute rhetorical conversion in order to get votes.

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Shaun Casey, professor of Christian Ethics and director of Wesley Seminary's Washington capital semester program, took it a step further. Kerry must use a Catholic backdrop ("if he can find an institution that will have him") and articulate how his beliefs translate into action. In their statement released late last year, "Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility," the U.S. bishops described some American Catholics as "politically homeless" -- concerned about a range of issues, such as health care, housing, war and peace, usually associated with Democrats, while committed to eliminating legal abortion, a Republican issue. "This is a campaign speech waiting to be written," said Casey.

Kerry should use the bishops' statement as a jumping-off point to discuss the moral dimensions of environmental policy, the economy and foreign policy, he said.

And what of Kerry's problems with some American bishops, those who have threatened to deny him Communion because of his pro-choice views? The overwhelming vote of the U.S. bishops to leave the decision on Communion and pro-choice politicians to individual bishops in their respective dioceses should provide Kerry enough room to maneuver, said Casey.

So Casey and Podesta agree that Kerry must tackle the religious issue head-on. But, given the constraints of time, the pressure of other constituencies, and an apparent reluctance to highlight religious themes, does the Kerry camp get it?

Podesta, a liberal pragmatist, thinks so. "There's going to be a plan [to reach out to the religious community]," he told NCR, "because there has to be a plan."

*****

They don't get show-cased in the well-scripted, one-hour network party unity program that is the Democratic Convention for millions of Americans watching in their living rooms, but the party's left-wing is well represented in Boston.

Michael Moore is the hot ticket, screening "Fahrenheit 9/11" with activists, college students, and union members.

Howard Dean is everywhere, moving from one event to the next, serving up red-meat to true believers. At an overflow ballroom crowd of Deaniacs on Tuesday, Dean urged progressives to build the Democratic Party from the ground up by running for local office -- school board, city council, state representative. His new organization is endorsing candidates around the country. One Dean-backed candidate is running for library trustee, which, said the former Vermont governor, some might consider too small an office to be concerned about.

"I happen to think that library trustee is a very important office in an administration where they like book burning better than reading books," said Dean.

The crowd loved it.

Meanwhile, Dennis Kucinich and Jesse Jackson wowed hundreds of union members, activists and delegates at a "Repeal the Patriot Act" rally July 26. From the pulpit of the St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral across from the Boston Common, Kucinich decried a "groupthink that is producing a national security state." Many of his congressional colleagues had no idea what they were doing when they supported the post-9/11 Patriot Act, said Kucinich. "They probably thought they were voting for a resolution honoring the New England Patriots," he joked.

"We must end the war in Iraq," thundered Jackson. "It's time to bring the troops home and send George Bush home."

Standing ovation.

*****

The much-vaunted unity of the Democratic Party is real, at least in Boston. Even those delegates who would like an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq seem prepared to sublimate their beliefs for the greater good: Removing George W. Bush from office.

Still, some of them don't like it.

Bill and Laurie Hilty own a small manufacturing company that makes children's bedroom furniture in Finlayson, Minn. The couple ran to become delegates, said Laurie, because "we opposed the war and the only candidate who was against it before the [congressional] resolution was Dennis Kucinich."

Since Kerry secured the nomination, said Laurie, "the party is moving rightward. It's moving in the direction that made us Kucinich delegates to begin with."

The rightward shift is all about undecided voters, said Bill, who as a four-term member of the Minnesota House of Representatives knows something about getting votes. "They only deal with the known quantities, rather than the millions of people, the self-disenfranchised, who don't vote," said Bill.

As they are speaking, a Kucinich delegate wearing a "Don't Make Me Vote for Nader" T-shirt walks by.

So are they tempted to vote for the only antiwar candidate in the general election?

"Not this time," said Laurie. Removing Bush is too important, she said.

*****

Kucinich met with his delegates in the basement of St. Paul's Church following the anti-Patriot Act rally. After holding out for months, Kucinich recently endorsed Kerry.

"I am releasing you to vote your consciences," he told his delegates, meaning they were no longer bound to vote for him when the roll is called in their state delegations.

"We have moved this party in a progressive direction and our constituency will make a critical difference in this election," Kucinich told his delegates.

Still, he expressed some uneasiness. "It's so critical that we leave this convention united," said Kucinich. After the roll is completed, a Kucinich staffer instructed the delegates, there will be a motion to make Kerry's nomination unanimous. Kucinich, who is reportedly eyeing an Ohio Senate seat, would clearly like his delegates to go along with it and not raise a stink on national television.

"There are people looking to distort what you're doing," Kucinich warned the delegates. "Don't let the media separate us," he cautioned.

"Thank you for who you are, for your integrity and for your honesty," the Ohio congressman told the group.

*****

The Kucinich delegates are not the only marginalized Democrats in Boston.

Democrats for Life gathered for a reception Monday night and they needed a room larger than a phone booth to conduct their business. In fact, they met in the majestic Great Room of the Massachusetts State House. Nearly two-dozen antiabortion and anti-death penalty office holders and office seekers joined approximately 50 members of the organization and its supporters.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver was there, as was former Boston mayor and U.S. ambassador to the Vatican Ray Flynn.

So what's a pro-life Democrat to do in this election?

"Vote for Kerry," said Irv Anderson, a Kerry delegate from Minnesota. A longtime party activist (he was a Jimmy Carter alternate delegated in 1976), Anderson said he backed Kerry in the primaries because he, like Kerry, is a military veteran.

Mary Ellen Otremba, a pro-life Democratic Minnesota state representative, said that Republican opposition to abortion is largely phony, that it's "just something they use" to get votes. "I don't think the [Republican] leadership wants it to change -- they've raised millions on this issue," said Otremba.

Flynn struck a pragmatic note. "It's up to us to convince [Democratic politicians] that they can win elections by being pro-life," said Flynn. He acknowledged that those who argue that the Democratic Party is hostile to abortion opponents, as evidenced by the lack of pro-life speakers at the convention, have a point. Still, he said, "the one pro-life speaker at the Republican convention will be a Democrat." Georgia Sen. Zell Miller, an antiabortion Democrat scheduled to speak at the Republican gathering in New York, has endorsed President Bush.

*****

Another irony. Rep. James Langevin (D-RI), a member of the Democrats for Life Federal Advisory Board, introduced Ron Reagan to the convention Tuesday evening. The late president's son made an impassioned plea for embryonic stem cell research funding, which many in the pro-life community oppose, equating it with abortion. Langevin, an abortion opponent, is the first quadriplegic to serve in Congress.

*****

While there have been speeches and gatherings geared to promoting the Democratic Party's commitment to abortion rights, they are the exception and not the rule at this convention.

Though its platform reiterates the party's commitment to reproductive rights, the issue was not mentioned by platform committee co-chairs Rosa DeLauro or Tom Vilsack in their brief presentations Monday afternoon. They stressed national security and economic issues.

Likewise, a five-and-half-page news release issued by the campaign on the convention's first day highlights jobs, health care, energy independence and "the war against terror." No mention is made of hot button social issues, such as abortion or gay rights.

Even the outside progressive groups appear to have gotten the message. The left-leaning Campaign for America's Future (the group that hosted the Dean event described above), highlights 13 issues in its materials -- everything from "Protect and Extend Medicare" and "Good Jobs in the U.S." to "Quality Public Education" and "Accountable Corporations." No mention of social issues.

*****

Ralph Nader is not the most popular public figure at this convention, but it's hard to argue that he doesn't have a point when he says that both major parties are captives of corporate America.

A quick review of corporations holding parties, receptions and "salutes" to members of Congress who oversee their industries makes the point.

These were the publicized events (there are countless other more private gatherings) and this list covers only the first day of the convention -- and only up to lunchtime.

American Express, Amtrak, Bell South, Chevron, Chevy Chase Bank, and Nike co-sponsored a "delegate only" golf tournament. General Motors Acceptance Corporation hosted a brunch saluting Missouri Congressman Richard Gephardt. Lunch with Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin was underwritten by the Chicago's Stock Exchange, Mercantile Exchange, and Options Exchange. J.P. Morgan Chase saluted House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. DHL feted the Congressional Black Caucus; and the American Gaming Association fed the Nevada delegation.

Credential tags worn by members of the press come courtesy of AT&T.

It's a good thing conventions don't decide anything anymore -- there'd be little time for substance between the corporate-sponsored eating, drinking, and playing.

The e-mail address for Joe Feuerherd is jfeuerherd@natcath.org

 
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