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Democrats Are Risking Political Damnation

Voters relate to Bush's religiosity. A different critique is needed.

April 16, 2004|Ronald A. Klain

Beware the temptation to snicker, because therein lies defeat.

That is an important warning for those Democrats who have spent the days since President Bush's press conference making light of his invocation of "the Almighty" in the defense of his Iraq policy. Specifically, they've been snickering over the president's contention that "freedom is the Almighty's gift to every man and woman in this world."

Some critics have called the president's message "missionary." Some have said that it suggests a case for "religious war" by U.S. armed forces. Others have simply waved it about as evidence of a president who is intellectually or strategically shallow.

This is a dangerous path for Democrats.

During a debate in the 2000 primary campaign, the GOP candidates were asked to name the philosopher who had most affected their lives. Bush's answer was unique: Jesus Christ. As a senior advisor to Al Gore at the time, I recall the reaction in Democratic circles: laughter and disbelief. Bush was seen as a dunce at best, a panderer at worst. "George Bush probably can't even name a philosopher," was repeated so often in progressive circles that it became a theme. How could such an "uneducated person" win?

And yet, for countless independent and swing voters, Bush's invocation of divine inspiration said far more about his values -- and how much they were in line with their own -- than it did about any gaps in his Yale course work.

In the United States, a person who has knowledge must be respected. But someone who shares our values can be trusted. And the choice of a president is ultimately about trust more than respect.

In regard to the ongoing presidential campaign and the president's citation of divine inspiration for his Iraq policy, Democrats need to avoid falling into this same trap again.

Yes, there is much to criticize in the president's statement. Is he hypocritical to embrace a broad view of God-given rights when, during the 2000 campaign, he scoffed at Clinton-Gore efforts to promote freedom around the world? You bet. Is he myopic in seeing these issues only in some disfavored regimes, while ignoring the thirst for freedom in so many other countries? Absolutely. Is it wrong for the president to have sold the war to the American people on one basis (the search for weapons of mass destruction) and now defend its prosecution on a different basis (the promotion of human freedom)? Undoubtedly.

But at the same time, progressives should not belittle the notion that American foreign policy will support the objective of promoting God-given freedoms around the world. There is plenty of intellectual elitism in both parties, but in political terms, it's an arrogance that the Democrats would be well-advised to resist.

Rather than laughing at the president's invocation of the notion of natural rights to justify his policies in Iraq, Democrats should make it abundantly clear that they share the president's view that all humans are created free and are entitled to enjoy the benefit of that innate freedom. After all, wasn't the idea of an "unalienable" right to liberty put into writing in 1776 by the father of the Democratic Party, Thomas Jefferson? And more recently, haven't these been the ideals that Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Gore pursued around the world -- often with great derision from conservatives?

Instead of belittling the president's reliance on the Almighty, Democrats should make clear that we share the president's goals but think that his methods have been deeply flawed. The mission may be from above, but the planning has been from someplace else.

*

Ronald A. Klain, a lawyer in Washington, was chief of staff to Vice President Al Gore and a senior advisor to Gore's 2000 campaign.

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