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Richard Cohen

Dupes and Dopes Of Campaign '04

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, November 9, 2004; Page A27

A phrase from a press release struck me: "In voting for George Bush, religious Americans were duped into voting against their best interests." The operative word is "duped," and it explains, almost by itself, why the Democratic Party is in the pits and John Kerry is not the next president of the United States. Only a dope thinks these voters were duped.

The press release comes from an organization called "Retro vs. Metro America," which -- par for the course nowadays -- is also a book and a Web site and soon, probably, a breakfast cereal. It is Democratic, and consists of some pretty impressive people, including the pollster Celinda Lake. And while a press release is, after all, just a press release, the one from Retro vs. Metro does represent the fairly common view that cultural conservatives have no idea what they are doing. For a little piece of heaven, they will sacrifice a better standard of living, health insurance and a chance to live their retirement in splendor.


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In some theoretical way, this may be the case. But in the real world, as they say, you tell me what Democratic program would have improved the economic well-being of your average family so that, even for a moment, it would have to weigh trading off a cultural conviction. Is there a single American out there who really thought that Kerry's program to end or limit or whatever the outsourcing of jobs overseas was going to amount to anything? If so, that person should have been deprived of the right to vote on the grounds of insanity.

And tell me, is there anyone out there who thought you could narrow the deficit and fund all sorts of programs merely by eliminating the tax breaks President Bush gave the very rich -- people who make more than $200,000 a year? I voted for Kerry, but I didn't believe that for a second.

So just how, precisely, were all these cultural conservatives duped? It seems to me that they saw through the promises for what they were -- empty -- and voted on what mattered most to them. They knew, just as we all know, that nothing in the Democrats' oh-so-moderate program was going to make much difference to them -- or, even if it did, it was not worth what they would have had to give up in exchange.

Sometimes a voter may actually decide to vote against his or her economic self-interest. In an Oct. 26 column I cited Jewish voters as an example. As a definable group, they are among the wealthiest in the country, and yet time and again they vote overwhelmingly Democratic. In the 2004 election, Bush got only about 20 percent of the Jewish vote. In that column, I cited the power of culture, which is not simply inherited, like hair color, but can be the product of thought as much as tradition.

Most Jews are not voting Democratic out of mere habit. They are making a conscious decision to forgo an economic benefit for something that matters more -- a cultural imperative for social justice. They believe in social welfare programs. They believe in redistributing wealth (some of it, anyway), and they believe firmly in civil rights and civil liberties. What are these rights worth? Anything you can name, because history teaches that without them even the pursuit of happiness is futile.

It behooves Democrats to understand that Christian conservatives can make the same, hard choices. Of course, real economic privation can change the equation -- would you rather have a job or stop gay marriage? -- but barring that sort of choice, culture wins out.

That does not mean that liberals have to feign agreement or abandon their values. When it comes to gays, for instance, the Republican Party has engaged in unconscionable demagoguery -- and the president knows it. In the short run, gay rights may be a losing issue, but this is a matter of human rights, not to be traded away. With all due respect to the voters of most of the states, on certain issues, I'd rather be right than red.

Still, what matters most is attitude, a mind-set that does not convey the message that people who vote the "wrong" way are dupes. These people know exactly what they are doing and why they are doing it. It is the people who insist otherwise who are the true dupes in this case -- not of some political candidate, but of their own wishful thinking.

cohenr@washpost.com


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