How the GOP Can Win Back The Values Debate and How Dems Could Lose It

The secret to what ails both parties, and our politics, is a return to the 2000s, the days of compassionate conservatism and culture-war compromises.

One thing is always true in American politics: One party is in trouble, and the other is heading toward it. A big loss always forces a party toward despair and then attempts at renewal, while winning leads to complacency and overconfidence. I saw these dynamics play out while leading faith outreach for President Obama's reelection campaign and serving in the White House. During that time, I met hundreds of thousands of voters, and I learned how sincerely torn many of them are between our two political parties.

Despite cries from Beltway pundits that the American electorate is deeply and irreconcilably divided, the partisanship we see in Washington is a poor reflection of the character and values of the American people. This was clear to me on the campaign trail. I spoke with moderate Catholics who loved their Church, and disagreed with the Obama Administration's approach to the HHS contraception policy, but were motivated by their Catholic concern for the common good to support health reform. I met with Latino Christians who were uncomfortable with gay marriage, but also had trouble supporting a candidate who failed to see the conflict between family values and an immigration policy of self-deportation. I held events with young evangelicals who disagreed deeply with the president's stance on abortion rights, but could not reconcile spending their summer volunteering to serve the Third World poor with a vote for a candidate who suggests starting the foreign-aid budget at zero.

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For these people, neither party is working. Their loyalty to party will only go as far as their values take them. So both parties have a choice to make.

The Republican Party is in danger of losing relevance in national elections, and becoming a party defined by its limitations: the cities it is unable reach and the voters it cannot attract. In a recent Pew survey, a strong majority (63 percent) of Americans believed the GOP has "strong principles," but a majority also viewed them as "too extreme," "out of touch with American people," not "open to change," and not looking out for America's future. It is one thing for the American people to trust the Democratic Party and President Obama more than Republicans on issues like the economy, climate change, immigration reform, and gun safety. But what should really trouble Republican loyalists is that on the deeper questions of values and character, Democrats now have the upper hand.

I have worked hard over the last six years to elect President Obama twice, and to work for his success while he is in office. But I also believe that American politics works best when both parties offer voters of various backgrounds and priorities a real, positive choice. For the last four years, the Republican Party has failed to do that. But Republicans should take comfort that the answers exist where they are most comfortable looking: the past. No, not to the 18th century and the Tea Party, but a mere decade ago with the compassionate conservatism of George W. Bush.

As Bush said often during his 2000 presidential campaign, compassionate conservatism is an approach that was "first and foremost springing from the heart." After the clear success of the Clinton Administration in improving people's lives, conservative rhetoric about government seemed cold and dogmatic: Even if you don't believe government should be the first tool of choice, why wouldn't you at least take it out of the toolbox? So Bush promised to use government to fight poverty at home and abroad through support for civic society, and improve education, particularly for minority children who were languishing in underfunded and poorly staffed school districts.

After the past four years of toying with what E.J. Dionne rightly calls a "radical individualism," Republicans' best hope is a return to a politics that leads with values. Compassionate conservatism does just that: Rhetorically, it values people over an idolatry of ideology that is disconnected from Americans' lives. Is it any wonder people question whether Republicans are looking out for them when the GOP responds to a president's passionate call to save children's lives through gun safety with twisted appeals to the Second Amendment, and suggestions that we give elementary-school teachers automatic rifles? Or refer to the free market and federalism as their reasons for opposing health reform that promises to improve Americans' quality of life and access to care? My Republican friends should know that the American people are profoundly less interested in Ronald Reagan and Milton Friedman than their own futures and those of their children.

Conservatives don't need to change their core principles to win a national election again, but they must filter their principles through a concrete concern for people's lives. Look no further than another Bush, Jeb, for a preview of the upcoming battle in the GOP. At the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this year, Jeb delivered a speech every political operative on either side of the aisle should read. He told the conservative gathering:

Here's reality: if you're fortunate enough to count yourself among the privileged, the rest of the nation is drowning. In our country today, if you're born poor, if your parents didn't go to college, if you don't know your father, if English isn't spoken at home, then the odds are stacked against you. You are more likely to stay poor today than at any other time since World War II.

Unfortunately, the great tragedy of the past decade is that liberals have channeled the anger and frustration that comes from this oppressive dynamic and used it as an opportunity to attack the very idea of success itself. In their view, anyone who has climbed to the top 1 percent, top 10 percent, or top 20 percent has committed some form of gross social breach, and they deserve our scorn.

The voters Republicans need have no desire for compassion without understanding. A compassionate conservatism that hides a disdain for the downtrodden will not work.

In John's Gospel, some men of the law bring a prostitute to Jesus and tell Jesus that God's justice demands that she be stoned to death. Jesus responds that the first among them who has not sinned should cast the first stone. Of course, the men all drop their stones. This was not Jesus going soft on principle. It was Jesus extending grace and striking at the men's arrogance. Republicans need to reconnect their policies to values to win again. They need a conservatism with grace. A conservatism with a capacity for empathy.

The Republicans' most recent approach to presidential elections certainly isn't doing the trick. The Democratic nominee for president won in November, despite Republican certainty of the rightness of their political philosophy and Americans' response to a struggling economy. From Osawatomie to his address at the Democratic convention, Obama repeatedly made the case that Democrats cared about how people were doing in their daily lives, while Republicans would advance their ideology regardless of its impact. Republicans obviously would contest this account, but they were unsuccessful in pushing back during the campaign. Remember, a majority of Americans believe that, yes, the Republicans have their principles, but those principles are out of touch and not about Americans' future.

This construct gives the Democrats a major advantage, but the party faces an uncertain future. There is a reason the party remains in the minority in the House and faces a tough battle in 2014 to hold the Senate. Still, there has been little conversation about the direction Democrats need to go in order to continue their ascent. And while the party may seem to have the wind at its back on social issues, such as LGBT-rights and reproductive choice, I believe the culture wars still pose a serious danger to the Democratic Party.

After an unexpected and crushing loss to President Bush in 2004, leaders in the party and progressive movement took steps to try to ensure that they were never caught flat-footed on faith and social issues again. New progressive faith organizations sprung up, including Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, Catholics United, and Faith in Public Life. Party insiders took meetings with religious leaders and organizations that they would have previously ignored. Soon, Democratic politicians, strategists, and large slices of the faith community were sharing a message that tapped into a sentiment that was widely felt: We need to end the culture wars.

Today, Democrats are in a similar position as Republicans after 2004. Both parties staked out an aggressive position on social issues and won. Republicans took this as a mandate. They were wrong. Democrats are already showing signs of similar hubris.

In 2006, the Democratic Party would have viewed the controversy over Kermit Gosnell as an opportunity to show that they are not ideologues on reproductive issues. Taking on Gosnell should not be politically difficult -- he's an unethical (to say the least) doctor who is on trial for killing babies who were born after failed abortion attempts, as well as creating unsafe, unsanitary, and frankly draconian conditions for women at his clinic. In 2013, however, Democrats have largely kept quiet. Some have reiterated the state of the law -- of course, killing a child after he or she is born is a crime and should be prosecuted -- but the horrors of the Gosnell clinic surely call for more than a passive affirmation of the law. Many Democrats have already expressed openness to abortion restrictions in the abstract, and a majority of Americans support making abortion legal in only a "few" circumstances, or making it illegal entirely. What abortion restriction is easier to support than clear policies on babies who have already been born?

The Democratic Party must decide again whether it wants to end the culture wars or if it now wants to try to win them. Ending the culture wars doesn't mean pretending we all agree and that the status quo is acceptable to either side. What it does mean is extending goodwill, and yes, grace, to those who disagree with the Democratic position on these issues. It may be good fodder for fundraising emails and targeted paid advertising, but the motivation of most social conservatives is not to oppress women (in fact, a lot of them are women), and suggesting pro-life Americans want to take America back to the Stone Age unnecessarily tells millions of people that today's America, not to mention the Democratic Party, has no room for them. This type of rhetorical approach is comparable to the strident moralizing that beat up Democrats and divided the country in the last quarter of the 20th century. Ending the culture wars means being able to cross enemy lines when the other side is right, and speaking to the other side's interests as well as your own whenever possible. Trying to win the culture wars will end up too costly -- for our country and for the Democratic Party.

The choices facing America's two political parties are real and immediate. Will Republicans reject the "radical individualism" of the last four years, and return to a compassionate conservatism that remembers our bonds and obligations to one another? Will Democrats decide to end the culture wars, or try to win them? The voters I spoke to on the campaign trail are waiting for their answers, and the answers they receive will say much about the values -- and the fate -- of our two parties.

This column was orginally published in The Atlantic.

Michael Wear is senior vice president of Values Partnerships. He previously led faith outreach for President Obama's 2012 campaign and served in the White House faith-based initiative. Follow Michael on twitter at @MichaelRWear.

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