THE RIGHT TO VOTE is a quintessential American value, a solemn trust. For decades the Democratic party led the movement to expand voting rights. Democrats championed the 1965 Voting Rights Act (and its renewal four times). More recently, Democrats have spearheaded efforts to mobilize young people and the disabled and to enfranchise non-English speakers and even convicted felons. Indeed, the Democratic party has always stood firmly on the side of a more inclusive right to vote.
Always, that is, until conservative people of faith stood up and voted like never before.
For Christian conservatives, 2004 was a watershed year at the ballot box. An unprecedented GOP get-out-the-vote effort drew 12 million new evangelicals to the polls, catapulting President Bush and Republicans to victory.
The lessons of the "values voter" election left Democrats facing a difficult strategic choice: Reach-out to religious voters or somehow persuade them to sit out the next election altogether. Which path did they choose? The Washington Post summed it up recently: "A big part of the Democratic strategy . . . is to suppress turnout among Christian conservatives, a pillar of the GOP coalition."
Their plan was simple: Convince ethics-minded voters that Republicans are, well, devoid of ethics. The Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal was a start, but that was largely bi-partisan. Then the Mark Foley sex scandal broke. The subsequent media frenzy provided Democrats with an opportunity to prove that the drip-drip-drip of Washington scandal was in fact a tidal wave of corruption emanating directly from the Republican party--and one Democrats could count on to sink GOP prospects with churchgoing voters.
Democratic party leaders held press conferences denouncing Foley and questioning the response of the House Republican leadership. Democratic congressional candidates across the Midwest began running ads attempting to link their Republican opponents to Foley, tarring them even for simply accepting campaign money from political action committees directed by the GOP leadership.
Hours after the scandal broke, Democrat Patty Wetterling, running for Minnesota's 6th congressional district, rushed a TV ad onto the air calling for "the immediate expulsion of any congressmen involved in this crime and cover-up." The clear (and incorrect) implication was that a cover-up had taken place and that her opponent, Republican state senator Michele Bachmann (a mother of 5 children and foster mother to 23 teenagers before her political career) may have been involved.
Democratic operatives then broadened their investigations, prying into the personal lives of Republicans in numerous key House races. In Upstate New York, for instance, Democratic candidate Kirsten Gillibrand demanded that Republican Rep. John E. Sweeney explain a drunken driving arrest 30 years ago and a more recent car accident.
Then Democrats were given a gift.
David Kuo, former deputy director of President Bush's office of faith-based initiatives, published a book claiming that the administration was never serious about reaching out to Christians, and instead "privately derid[ed] evangelical Christians." On 60 Minutes, Kuo advised evangelicals, ". . . to take a step back. To have a fast from politics."
But the Democrats' attack-and-distract strategy fails to recognize one thing: While conservatives have legitimate concerns, isolated scandals only reaffirm the need to be more involved. For moral-minded voters, it's important to remain engaged and active in the political process, electing principled, socially conservative candidates to enact sound policy.
Some conservative commentators have suggested that the GOP may need a couple years in the wilderness to get back to its conservative roots. But savvy people of faith realize that opting out of the political process would only serve to help elect candidates diametrically opposed to their values, placing the most liberal members of Congress in positions of power on the most important committees.
Too many crucial issues--including immigration reform and possibly a Supreme Court appointment--will be addressed during the next two years. The recent New Jersey Supreme Court decision opening the door to same-sex marriage in that state--and presenting a direct challenge to the federal Defense of Marriage Act--only reinforces the need to elect legislators willing to stand up to unelected judges who are determined to redefine our most cherished values.
America also finds itself at a crossroads in the war against Islamic fascism, a battle in which one political party continues to misunderstand the nature of an enemy intent on our annihilation.
Clearly, this is no time to "cut and run" from the political process.
Christian conservatives will be presented with a stark choice on November 7. They can, as Samuel Adams famously advised, "execute one of the most solemn trusts in human society." Or they can withdraw from the democratic process, and thereby ensure the election of a congressional majority whose own cut and run strategy would undermine the democratic ideals America has worked so hard to defend at home and abroad.
Gary Bauer is chairman of the Campaign for Working Families.