washingtonpost.com  > Opinion > Columnists > Ellen Goodman

Winning Back Values Voters

By Ellen Goodman
Saturday, November 6, 2004; Page A23

BOSTON -- I got familiar with the losing business rather early in life. When I was just a kid my dad ran for Congress. He lost by about 600 votes, although I suspect that over the years, that number has been chipped away by family lore.

What my child's eye remembers the most is what happened the next morning. My dad got up, put on his tie and went to the office.

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I learned something that day. This is what grown-ups do: They get back up and go to work. So in the wake of John Kerry's defeat, here's my prescription. Take an afternoon off for recriminations, a morning for whining, then race through the Kubler-Ross stages of grief and get back to work. Job No. 1: moral values.

These are the stories spilling over the media transom: "Faith, Values Fuel Win"; "Values Trumped War, Terror"; and "Moral Values Drove Bush Victory." According to pollsters, the top issue on voters' minds was "moral values" and the candidate of the morals voter was overwhelmingly George W. Bush.

We are now well on the way -- with a little help from our conservative friends -- to making this the central narrative of the 2004 campaign. It was the morals, stupid. It was the culture wars, dummy. It was, as Gary Bauer said cheerily, "the year of the values voter." This story line is rapidly connected to the gay marriage amendments that brought out conservatives in 11 states.

I find this absolutely maddening. Check the choices put before the exiting voters. They could pick, among other things, Iraq, the economy or moral issues. The underlying conclusion was that those who picked the war, say, or jobs were not voting their values.

I suspect that the people answering the exit polls also accepted the categorical divide between the pocketbook and the Bible, between economic and moral issues, between war and values. Anyone who isn't a member of the antiabortion, anti-gay-rights, fundamentalist right is categorized -- or caricatured -- as someone who checked her values 100 yards from the polling booth.

Well, speaking for the designated "immoral minority," there are a whole lot of folks who believe that starting a preemptive war on false premises is a moral issue. There are a whole lot of people who believe that giving tax cuts to the rich and a deficit to the grandkids is a matter of values. There are a whole lot who put our faith, secular and sacred, in the most religiously diverse country in the world.

But the entire moral vocabulary is now a wholly owned language of the religious right.

I know, I promised no recriminations. But if this is a cultural war, the Democrats came to it verbally unarmed. There was no larger moral framework for the war; just the promise to fight it better and smarter. The environment never made it onto the screen as central to the progressive "culture of life." Kerry voted for abortion rights but framed his support weakly. He sided with opponents of gay marriage, who opposed him anyway.

The economic language of "two Americas" that John Edwards had used was dropped like a hot liberal potato. The cultural reality of "two Americas" helped keep Bush in office.

It's not a news bulletin that progressives are often tongue-tied in talking about values. Thomas Frank went home to ask "What's the matter with Kansas?" and came back with a book explaining how economic populism had been replaced by cultural populism. George Lakoff's "Moral Politics" has become a handbook for progressives who need to understand the worldviews of right and left, the connecting threads of family and morality, and to reframe the debate on shared terms.

The blue candidates will never convert people who believe that homosexuality is a sin, or that the fertilized egg is a human being, or that evolution is a scam taught by secular humanists. But among the not-so-red voters are those who believe in legal protection for gay couples, who value a child with diabetes over a frozen embryo in a fertility clinic. They regard poverty as a moral issue and tolerance as an American value. They don't want their country racked by the fundamentalist religious wars we see across the world. And they need to hear the moral framework for these views.

So this is the time for the losers to go back to basics, to restate their views into a basic simple, straightforward language of values and morals. It's the time to parse what we believe in. Especially right and wrong. It's time to get up and start all over again. Because that's what grownups do.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company