Clouds were gathering in Ohio on Election Day, threatening rain, but as the rush-hour traffic shuffled through Oakland, Pittsburgh was awash in a sun-streaked dawn. At the corner of Fifth and Bigelow, a group of students were holding "Honk for Kerry" signs. They cheered and waved as drivers honked and waved back. Inching through the intersection, I found myself wishing for a louder horn.
In a political campaign whose rhetoric was dominated by fear and despair, it was one of the few moments that gave me hope. And I still feel that optimism...despite everything that happened after the light turned green, and the country's electoral map went red.
Partly that's because Pennsylvania went for Kerry, which means there is a real hope of removing archconservative Republican Rick Santorum from the Senate in 2006. Pennsylvania voters have now picked a Democrat for President in 2000 and 2004; in 2002 they chose a Democratic governor. In each case the victory was delivered by moderate Philadelphia-area Republicans, moderates increasingly appalled by the Cro-Magnons like Santorum running their party.
I also take grim satisfaction knowing that Republicans are stuck with Arlen Specter for six more years. Specter, a pro-choice moderate, has long been despised by party hardliners, but President Bush backed Specter in a bruising primary against an ultraconservative rival. Specter was more likely to win in November, the thinking went, and keep the Senate in Republican hands. As it turned out, Republicans gained Senate seats in other states; they didn't need Specter after all. But they've got him anyway, and he's more likely to frustrate Bush than help. In line to chair the Senate Judiciary Committee, Specter has already warned Bush against nominating anti-abortion justices for the Supreme Court. Pro-lifers are probably wishing they'd campaigned for Specter's Democratic rival, Joe Hoeffel.
But the Specter story is the exception that proves this year's election rule, a rule that Democrats are beginning to learn. Republicans got burned for putting electability above ideology in the Specter race. Democrats get burned that way all the time.
In most other contests, ideology is how Republicans get elected. In national exit polls this year, one out of every five voters said their election priority was "moral values" -- issues like opposing gay marriage and abortion rights. But what's strange isn't that Republicans have been beating us over the head with the Bible. What's strange is that their copy of the Good Book seems to be only 12 pages long, and that each of those pages concerns only sexual morality. Conservative Christians will vote in record numbers to oppose gay marriage, but they do nothing to raise the minimum wage, even though the Gospel of Luke tells us "the laborer is worthy of his hire."
Since the election, Democratic pundits have expressed dismay that working-class people "vote against their own economic interests" by supporting Republicans. It's an odd complaint: Democrats deride the Republicans as the "party of greed," but when their supporters aren't greedy -- when they vote against their own economic concerns -- we fault them for being stupid.
In doing so, liberals miss how much they ought to have in common with working-class values. Liberals, too, envision a country governed by moral values: For us, being a Good Samaritan is a matter of public policy. Our position opposing school prayer is scriptural as well: Jesus himself cautioned, "When you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites" who do so in public "that they may be seen by men." We ought to honor selflessness for the greater good; it's what we're all about.
The problem is Republicans have done a better job of defining what that "good" is, and unlike Democrats, they don't apologize for their vision. They're giving voters a chance to build the Kingdom of God. John Kerry, by contrast, was offering a health-care plan he could hardly bring himself to talk about. Which sounds more appealing?
Liberals have been warning of, and waiting for, this day for years. We're tired of having to vote for candidates who seem embarrassed by the issues we support them for. And we're tired of seeing them lose, especially to candidates whose supporters say, "I don't always agree with him, but I know where he stands." At long last, Democrats must re-examine not just their tactics, but their principles. Because that's how Republicans have been kicking their asses: on principle.
To work, then. And to arms.