- The Washington Times - Monday, October 30, 2006

If Tom Edsall isn’t America’s greatest political writer, he’s close to it. He meets the two tests that matter the most. The first is whether one who analyzes politics is willing to write against preference. Mr. Edsall is, and “Building Red America” is a perfect example. He is a liberal, especially on social and cultural issues, who persuasively chronicles how Republicans have gained the upper hand in politics today and explains why Democrats, even if they defeat Republicans in the midterm elections on Nov. 7, are not poised to become the majority party again anytime soon.

The second test involves whether the political writer can command an audience. Mr. Edsall, who recently left The Washington Post to join the New Republic, can. In his case, anyone with a strong interest in politics is likely to read his pieces regardless of the specific subject matter. They’ll do so simply on the basis of the Edsall byline, assuming (as I do) that anything he writes is worth reading.

Mr. Edsall doesn’t buy the conventional wisdom of liberal political reporters and commentators, most notably their take on the effect of social issues. Their view is that Republicans do well despite their opposition to abortion, embryonic stem cell research, homosexual rights and racial preferences. His view, slightly oversimplified, is that Republicans win elections because of their social conservatism.

In both 2000 and 2004, President Bush was a beneficiary. He won, Mr. Edsall writes, at least partly as a result of the “the high-risk strategy by the conservative movement and the Republican party of forcing wedge issues, of leveraging every marginal advantage, and of bearing down hard on morality and sex.” Emphasizing social issues in 2000, he says, “established a framework for the aggressive use of the issue of gay marriage in 2004.”

I’d quibble with the idea that Republicans were “aggressive” in opposing same-sex marriage. True, Mr. Bush endorsed the protection amendment, but he hardly stressed it during the 2004 campaign. He didn’t need to. Same-sex marriage was already a prominent enough issue to aid in producing what Mr. Edsall calls at one point “a thin but durable GOP advantage” and at another a Republican “juggernaut.”

Mr. Edsall gently but firmly rebuts those who chiefly blame voters for Democratic defeats. Thomas Frank popularized this notion in his book “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” Mr. Frank argued that lower-middle-class voters, a natural Democratic constituency, are ignoring their economic interests to vote on the basis of social issues. Mr. Frank recommended that Democrats emphasize economic populism to lure these voters.

But the evidence from recent elections, Mr. Edsall notes, is that populist appeals haven’t worked. He cites the presidential campaigns of Al Gore, Howard Dean, John Edwards, Richard Gephardt, Tom Harkin and Jesse Jackson. The common thread: They all lost.

There’s also plenty of evidence that Democrats remain oblivious to the harm done them by their failure “to cross a security threshold” and gain credibility on national security. Mr. Edsall knows better. “Because the Democratic party became the party of antiwar activists during the Vietnam war,” he writes, “… and because the party became increasingly hostile to defense spending, the security threshold has been a major stumbling block for the party’s candidates.”

Fred Barnes is the executive editor of the Weekly Standard.

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