The Magazine

Life of the Party

Apr 11, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 28 • By FRED BARNES, FOR THE EDITORS
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THE WORDS OF HUBERT HUMPHREY became the motto of American liberalism almost from the moment he uttered them on the Senate floor in 1977. "The moral test of a government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life--the children; the twilight of life--the elderly; and the shadows of life--the sick, the needy, and the handicapped." Liberal Democrats embraced the Humphrey dictum as a measure of what they'd done and what they planned to do. This was the high moral ground they thought of as the Democratic party's exclusive heritage.

It no longer is. The indifference of liberalism to the fate of Terri Schiavo, by itself, demonstrates that. Those in the dawn of life and those in the shadows do not have advocates in liberalism and the Democratic party, at least not many. More often the weak and the innocent are targets. Democrats and liberals have fled the moral high ground, and they've done so voluntarily.

What was liberalism's response to the plight of Schiavo, the Florida woman forced to die last week? Some Democrats--Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa stands out--aided Republicans in putting the Schiavo case in federal court and giving her a chance to live. But for most, the issue was not that a woman who was brain-damaged, and whose parents wanted to care for her, was being put to death. No, the issue was procedural. The rule of law and the requirements of federalism supposedly barred intervention by Congress or federal courts in the case. States' rights suddenly became a tenet of modern liberalism. In effect, liberalism washed its hands of Schiavo, the epitome of someone in the "shadows of life." Sick, needy, and handicapped? She was all three.

At the "dawn of life," no one is more vulnerable than an unborn child. Yet liberals' lack of sympathy for the unborn has become so deep-seated that late-term abortions, which amount to infanticide, fail to provoke their moral outrage. The evidence is clear now that the vast majority of partial-birth abortions are performed for convenience, not because of any threat to the health of the mother. Thus the health exception for partial-birth abortions has become solely a loophole exploited to justify the killing of unborn children on the brink of life. This fact is not a secret. Still, the dominant liberal elements of the Democratic party (along with some Republicans) cling to the idea that a health exception must be preserved.

Though Humphrey's maxim didn't touch on foreign policy, liberalism has jettisoned its moral heritage there, too. FDR, Truman, and JFK all hailed the spread of liberty as the hallmark of a liberal foreign policy. Today, however, liberals and Democrats find no joy in the success of President Bush's drive for democracy in the Middle East, success they had deemed impossible or perhaps undesirable. Instead, they have adopted, in the words of New Republic editor-in-chief Martin Peretz, "the politics of churlishness" toward the advance of democracy. Again, not all Democrats have, just most of them.

There's a political lesson in all this--for Republicans as well as Democrats. It's hardly a coincidence that the electoral fortunes of the Democratic party have declined as it turned away from its traditional focus on moral issues. It has ceded the White House, Congress, and a majority of statehouses. It has become the party of liberal interest groups, the party of reaction, and the party of process. Rather than take up moral issues, Democrats are more likely to dismiss them as scary obsessions of the religious right. This is a political mistake of considerable magnitude.

In the 1990s, Democrats calculated that attacks on Republicans for opposing unfettered abortion would produce electoral dividends. Quite the opposite occurred. In 2004, they thought Bush's policy of limiting federal support of embryonic stem-cell research and seeking to ban so-called therapeutic cloning would be an albatross to his reelection campaign. It wasn't.

For conservatives and Republicans, the lesson should be obvious. There's no reason to fear being the champion of the weak and the poor. The party's rise over the past decade is linked to its growing attention to the moral issues this role entails. True, abortion, euthanasia, and other moral problems make many Americans uncomfortable. And these issues often poll poorly. But they have a resonance that is unmistakable. The crusade to uproot slavery was opposed by all the South and half the North. Yet it made Republicans the majority party for more than 70 years. The civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s was far less popular than is widely remembered. But Democratic presidents who took on the cause of civil rights solidified their party's moral self-confidence.