- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 2, 2003

An odd thing is happening to Democrats as we near the 2004 elections: Some now support more conservative positions on guns and abortion — two of the most contentious social issues of our time.

Last month, Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, up for re-election next November, and nine other Democrats backed a Republican bill protecting gun manufacturers, dealers and ammunition-makers from liability lawsuits — blocking gun-control activists and trial lawyers suing the firearm industry for any deaths and injuries caused by guns. “The vast majority of gun owners, manufacturers and sellers are honest and law-abiding,” Mr. Daschle said. “It is wrong, and it is a misuse of the civil justice system, to try to punish honest, law-abiding people for illegal acts committed by others without their knowledge or involvement.”

National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre couldn’t have said it better. Just a few years ago, Democrats might have condemned the NRA-backed Republican bill, but the gun control issue has been a political killer for their party, especially among some of the Democrats’ key constituencies in organized labor, rural areas and the South.

Democratic strategists blamed the gun-control issue in large part for Democrats losing the House in 1994. And after the 2000 election, Bill Clinton said Al Gore’s gun control pledge probably cost him the election.

“Democrats must wake up to the fact that gun owners prefer candidates who stand up for gun rights, responsible gun laws and vigorous [gun law] enforcement,” Jon Cowan, president of Americans for Gun Safety, told a Democratic Leadership Council strategy forum last month.

Mr. Cowan presented new evidence from Democratic pollster Mark Penn: voters widely believe they have a constitutional right to own guns, but many — especially gun owners — believe the Democrats do not “share this belief.” Mr. Daschle, who comes from a rural state with a large population of gun owners, gets the message.

But more surprising than Mr. Daschle’s vote for the pending gun liability bill — is that 17 Senate Democrats recently voted for the partial-birth abortion ban, the No. 1 legislative priority of the pro-life community. Mr. Daschle, who also voted for this, said he had “a lot of misgivings about this bill,” but that after eight years of debate, “it was time to move on” and send the issue to the courts.

Joining him in support of the bill were Democratic Sens. Evan Bayh of Indiana; Joseph Biden and Tom Carper of Delaware; John Breaux and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana; Robert Byrd of West Virginia; Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota; Ernest Hollings of South Carolina; Tim Johnson of South Dakota; Patrick Leahy of Vermont; Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor of Arkansas; Zell Miller of Georgia; Ben Nelson of Nebraska; and Harry Reid of Nevada.

The desertion of 17 mostly liberal Democrats on this core issue was a bitter blow to the feminist, pro-choice lobby that makes up a key part of the party’s base. The Democrats “got nervous,” said pro-choice leader Kate Michelman. That’s not how some Democratic strategists see it.

“We’re just getting smarter,” said an aide to the Senate Democratic leadership. But there is another area where Democrats have to shed their knee-jerk liberalism if they want to start winning again, some party strategists say. They need to get religion.

This was also one of the key cultural issues the DLC explored last month at its strategy forum in Atlanta. Some years ago, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut testified before the Democratic Convention’s platform committee, urging it to include some reference to God and the importance of religious values. His plea was summarily rejected. Democrats have suffered politically since.

The DLC thinks this is a big hole in the party’s fabric, and so did the Democratic strategists and candidates who attended the forum.

Princeton University’s Amy Sullivan said the Democrats had to connect with people of faith by “genuinely expressing their own religious faith … distancing themselves from militant secularists,” and “addressing concerns about the moral condition of the country, and the challenges of families trying to raise children.” Cultural issues such as these — the right to bear arms, the immorality of late-term abortions and the spiritual values that define our nation — have been at the center of American politics in the last two decades.

The Republicans recognized their political and moral importance, and have prospered as a result. The Democratic Party turned its back on these issues, and is now in the political wilderness.

Some sensible Democrats know they will have to embrace the cultural center if they are to become politically popular again, but the party’s dominant liberal wing is still a long way from learning that lesson.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.


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