Reaching too far on 'values'

The passing of the pope has mercifully moved the Terri Schiavo political circus into the history file. Still, that media frenzy is a cautionary tale about the real message of the 2004 election. A Democratic operative once told me that the reason we have a two-party system in this country is that those in power eventually overreach. In the Schiavo case, the Republican leadership did just that.

The passing of the pope has mercifully moved the Terri Schiavo political circus into the history file. Still, that media frenzy is a cautionary tale about the real message of the 2004 election.

A Democratic operative once told me that the reason we have a two-party system in this country is that those in power eventually overreach. In the Schiavo case, the Republican leadership did just that.

By pandering to the religious right, the leadership created the impression that, as former Sen. John Danforth (R-Mo.) wrote in The New York Times, they had “transformed our party into the political arm of conservative Christians.” If that position gets extended into the debate over judicial nominations, Republican Party leaders risk sending the wrong message to voters they need and Democrats desperately want back.

Yes, there are millions of “values” voters out there. They worry about jobs, personal security, safe schools, movies and video games their kids play while their parents work two jobs. (And just what is going on with all those cell phones and text messages?) In the 1980s, we labeled these voters Reagan Democrats once they made California’s former governor a popular president.

President Reagan knew how to appeal to these voters’ sense of family, their lack of security and their economic uncertainty. He pictured Democrats as big-spending, arrogant, union-controlled oligarchs run amok. That view became part of our political mythology. (There was even a “Simpsons” episode in which Grandpa Simpson starts receiving unexplained checks from the government and attributes his windfall to the fact Democrats are in control.)

President Clinton’s overly ambitious healthcare plan finally convinced these voters that Democrats had overreached. The party lost control of Congress, and Clinton proclaimed the days of big government finished.

In the first two elections of this century, Republicans have narrowly won the White House and expanded their control on the Hill. The new political mythology is that “values voters” put them in power. In large part, that is true. But millions of those voters are pretty much the old Reagan Democrats who worry about jobs, families and living their lives according to their personal values.

Those words “personal values” are important. Depending on which poll you cite, no fewer than 60 percent and maybe more than 80 percent of Americans opposed the Republican-driven effort to interfere in the personal family decisions the Schindlers and Schiavos were struggling with.

Large majorities of Catholic voters and those describing themselves as conservative Christians also opposed the political intrusion. They don’t want government deciding when life is over any more than they want the government choosing their doctor.

The Republican leadership is in grave danger of overreaching, just as whatever party is in power has done for decades. The leaders seem destined to misunderstand the message of the past two elections.

Values voters are concerned about threats to their families’ security, violent video games and blue television. They are also concerned about gas prices, good jobs and a secure future. It makes them uneasy when the nation’s leaders can interrupt their Easter holiday to meddle in the matters of a family in Florida but can’t find time to deal with energy prices, Social Security or soaring deficits.

Democratic leaders are so frightened by values that they stood quietly by while the Schiavo family’s personal agony became political theater. If nothing else, Terri Schiavo should set them free. Republicans don’t understand the meaning of values either.

Nor do the media, it seems. I made the mistake of turning on the TV during the height of all Terri all the time. I was amazed to see a reporter standing in front of her hospice repeating himself while a crawl at the bottom of the screen told me the Intelligence Commission had concluded our prewar Iraq intelligence was “dead wrong.” Some news director had his priorities scrambled that day.

Voters seem to feel instinctively that both parties are capable of overreaching. As an about-to-be Reagan Democrat told me just before the ’84 election, “I want to keep the Democrats out of my pocketbook and the Republicans out of my bedroom.” Whether you consider that observation plainspoken or crude, the point is one that Republican leaders should carefully consider in the months ahead.

Americans narrowly chose Bush because he spoke with some eloquence about “values” while Sen. John Kerry confused them with issues. That won Republicans the votes they needed but didn’t invite them into the private lives of American families.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants GC Strategic Advocacy. E-mail: bgoddard@thehill.com