How should John Kerry talk about values?

Rep. Barney Frank, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, Alan Wolfe, Thomas Frank, Andrew Greeley and others weigh in on how Kerry should define America -- and defeat Bush's morality crusade.

Published July 26, 2004 7:57AM (EDT)

Editor's note: On the eve of the Democratic National Convention in Boston, Salon asked a range of experts to discuss how Kerry-Edwards should address the critical issues of the presidential election. Read Part 1 of the discussion, "How John Kerry Should Handle Iraq," here.

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Compiled by Salon staff

July 26, 2004  | 

Thomas Frank, author of "What's the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America"

Conservatives have expended vast resources to pin a sinful label on their hated foe, "liberal elite." Just the book titles alone sound like a list of cardinal sins: Arrogance, Bias, Persecution, Slander, Treason. Along the way, they have even managed to persuade the mainstream media that the GOP, thanks to its strength in the "heartland," holds a monopoly on all the virtues of Boy Scout law: humility, loyalty, piety, honesty, trustworthiness and so on.

Until now, the Democratic response has been wild, panicked me-too-ism. They seem to have forgotten the old Madison Avenue rule that making the identical claims as your competitor only strengthens his message, makes him seem like the real thing and you a cheap wannabe. A particularly disheartening example was John Kerry's recent claim to be a bearer of "conservative values," a tacit concession that liberals -- the rank and file of John Kerry's party, by the way -- really don't have good values. It was a tactical blunder that should have infuriated good liberals everywhere.

Democrats need a unique, distinctive take on values, and they need to go on the attack. First of all, they must neutralize the conservative "values" juggernaut by pointing out that conservative leaders are hypocrites. Republican claims are rendered obscene by Republican deeds. Here, allow the camera to sweep across a heartland panorama, with all its shuttered downtowns, cleaned-out farmers, retirees euchred by Enron, and cops beating strikers. Don't talk to us about humility when you're deregulating the electricity industry, accepting the boodle from Merrill Lynch, and feeding the population of this country into the maw of Archer Daniels Midland.

Second, focus on the values that Democrats have a natural claim to: security, equality, solidarity. Liberalism is capable of delivering a society where the gap between rich and poor, management and labor, isn't so vast. It's capable of giving us a world where people aren't constantly menaced by the shadow of poverty and disease. Where everyone has a right to healthcare, to an education, and to a job. Where Americans are one people, looking out for one another, not constantly at each other's throats. These are values that resonate powerfully with Americans, even those who live in red states, and they have the virtue of being values that are linked to action. They aren't just about the way you talk and the way you pray and the kind of car you drive -- they are about what you do.

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass.

I think the Democrats are already in much better shape than the Republicans in terms of values. In fact, I'd say the Republicans are the party of instant gratification: Give yourself a big tax cut now, forget about the deficit. Use up every drop of resources now, forget about conservation. Try to be as comfortable as you want, forget about global warming. In contrast, I think Democrats excel in the values of prudence and managing the country not just for their own gratification but for those who will come after them.

The Democrats' values are the ones that Hubert Humphrey talked about: how government should be worried about the poor, the elderly, the disabled. I think it's a question of values as to whether the richest nation in the history of the world allows people to be, through no fault of their own, hungry and suffering from homelessness -- an issue Kerry, Edwards and the Democratic Party need to talk about.

The Democratic message needs to be that we represent the most important values of the American people -- and I don't think we should agree with the implicit notion that equates values with a particular form of sexual behavior. When the Bush administration talks about values, to them it means sexual abstinence and no cursing -- except on the Senate floor. But in terms of personal morality, one of the strongest values in America is privacy. People shouldn't have to check with Tom DeLay before they go out on a date.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Ernest L. Arbuckle professor at Harvard Business School, Harvard University

The values that count are the ones that improve prosperity. Kerry should remind voters about the foundations of American resilience and job creation: open markets, borders and minds. Openness is not only a great value at this time of corporate sinning and presidential obfuscations but is also smart economics.

When it really comes down to it, the values that interest most Americans have dollar signs attached to them: a good life for their families, opportunities for advancement, freedom from financial worries. John Kerry should show he cares about people's aspirations even more than their values.

The term "values" is often a code word for faith. In one of the most religious countries on earth, Kerry is right to stress that he is guided by moral principles and troubled by moral dilemmas. His war record shows a lifelong commitment to character and discipline that distinguishes him from a youthful sinner born-again president who didn't serve. But campaigning as the morals candidate would be a risky distraction from pocketbook concerns.

The basic faith all Americans want is faith in the future of our way of life. Bush policies jeopardize that future: continuing high costs of a tar baby of a war in Iraq, a huge federal deficit that mortgages the future, brakes on scientific research that could save lives and create jobs, and failure to improve public education or reduce healthcare costs.

Kerry can express mainstream values through his economic policies, thereby getting a two-fer. He should stand with entrepreneurs touting the values of self-help and the virtues of hard work, while showing how much businesses can gain from enlightened trade policies, improvements in America's image in the world, and employees who feel more secure.

He should stand with white-collar professionals and manufacturing workers who fear job loss and show them a path to new jobs through innovation, along with a safety net to ease transitions onto that path.

Finally, he should stand with young people to show that his college funding plan will engage legions of youth in character-building national service, while making higher education more affordable and extending the American tradition of volunteerism.

William A. Galston, director of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy, University of Maryland

George W. Bush's "values" offensive is an effort to energize his base and to repeat his father's success in defining Michael Dukakis as out of the moral mainstream. The president may achieve the former objective, but he is unlikely to attain the latter, for two primary reasons.

First: In a year in which economic and security concerns are taking center stage for most voters, a values-based appeal is likely to fall flat for all except fervent social conservatives.

Second: As the first President Bush learned the hard way in 1992, values issues are a two-edged sword. If an appeal to "traditional values" shades over into intolerance, the party of intolerance will pay a price with middle-of-the-road voters. While a majority of the electorate disapproves of same-sex marriage, it also rejects President Bush's proposed constitutional amendment banning the practice.

John Kerry need not play defense on American values. He has a compelling argument of his own, and he's beginning to make it. The old Jacksonian principle of "equal opportunity for all, special privileges for none" is the basis, not only for progressive public policy today, but also for a powerful critique of an administration more beholden to unpopular special interests than any other in recent history. The idea of service to country, which John Kerry's life exemplifies, has the capacity to arouse the latent idealism of many Americans, especially young adults who are thirsting for a call to a mission larger than themselves. As Kerry's invocation of veterans shows clearly, most Americans respond strongly to the principle of reciprocity: Those who have served and, more broadly (in Bill Clinton's formulation), those who have worked hard and played by the rules, are entitled to decent treatment from their society and their country. Most people don't believe that average hard-working Americans have gotten their due under the Bush administration. Furthermore, most Americans embrace tolerance as a central value, one that permits a diverse society to function. Talk of morality becomes dangerous whenever a self-appointed "moral majority" tries to impose its preferences on the rest of us. Sen. Kerry can and should use every opportunity to identify with the ideal of tolerance and to portray his opponent as someone who has made a dangerous bargain with the least tolerant forces in our society.

The Rev. Andrew Greeley, professor of sociology at the University of Arizona; author of the novel "The Priestly Sins"

The Democratic Party needs to demonstrate that it shares these values with the vast majority of Americans:

  • Americans have the right to honest and accountable political leadership, not leadership that dissembles and shirks responsibility for its public actions.
  • Anyone who is willing and able to work -- regardless of age, race or gender -- is entitled to a job that is sufficient to support a family. No CEO is entitled to earn as much in a morning as their employees do all year.
  • Americans of every age are entitled to adequate healthcare at reasonable cost. They should not be subject to a system designed to maximize profits for pharmaceutical and insurance companies.
  • American children, wherever they live and whatever their background, have the right to a good education.
  • Americans should have access to financial safety nets at times of crisis in their lives.
  • Every American who is willing to study should be able to go to college.
  • Economic policies should benefit all Americans, not merely the rich and the super rich.
  • The United States should go to war only when there is absolutely no other choice, only as a last resort.
  • The United States should be a beacon of leadership to the whole world, not a superpower bully.
  • The government should demand honesty from corporate leaders, no matter how much they may have contributed to political campaigns.
  • No group in American society is a legitimate target for hate.
  • Workers have the right to join one another to seek a just economy for all Americans.
  • The freedom of all Americans should not be abridged by the government with false arguments about security.
  • Democrats should appeal to the openness and generosity of the American people, not to fear and greed.
  • Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, co-director of the National Marriage Project; author of "The Divorce Culture: Rethinking Our Commitments to Marriage and Family"

    John Kerry should shift the ground of the "values" debate by following the lead of the two Edwards: John and Elizabeth. First, he should expand upon John Edwards' "Two Americas" speech. Because there are two Americas, there are two sets of values: one for the rich and powerful, and one for everybody else. The values of the rich and powerful are "whatever works for me and my friends." The values honored by everybody else are "what works for my family, community and nation." The real values of America are not getting ahead on the backs of others. The real values are working hard, playing fair, telling the truth and lending a helping hand.

    Second, Kerry should build on Elizabeth Edwards' answer to the question asked of her on "60 Minutes": How can two wealthy men appreciate the needs of the average person? Noting that both running mates had voted against a tax cut that would have fattened their wallets, she responded: "Isn't that what we want? A leader who looks at the greater good instead of what simply benefits the person himself or the people in his own class?"

    At the same time, Kerry can also make it clear that he, like most voters, is a person of religious faith. But he should follow the actors' rule: Don't say it. Show it. He can show it by focusing on the tradition of giving to others, a tradition that has roots in both our "civic" religion and our diverse religious faiths. As part of his regular campaign schedule, Kerry could visit religiously sponsored community organizations -- food pantries, childcare centers, nursing homes, healthcare clinics and after-school programs. He might say to the people who serve there: "You are doing God's work. You are also doing your nation's work. I am here to thank you and to honor you."

    Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, Boston College

    When John Kerry responds to the efforts by Republicans to bring "values" into the campaign by insisting that healthcare and having a job are values, he is right but ineffective. For better or worse, "values" has become a code word for issues of character and morality. Kerry should not relinquish that "values" ground to the Republicans.

    Instead, Kerry should insist on the importance of one aspect of character that is especially appropriate to politicians: taking responsibility for one's acts. The way the Bush-Cheney team has adopted the morality of the 1960s -- against which they so frequently rail -- perfectly embodies what Christopher Lasch called the culture of narcissism. Like yuppies backing their machines into parking spaces meant for two cars, they insist that breaking old-fashioned rules of morality is fine, as long as it makes you feel good. Straitlaced Kerry, who fairly drips with a sense of duty, should nail them for it.

    It is not, of course, the vice president's use of the F-word that constitutes the most blatant neglect of responsibility in Washington these days. George W. Bush is no Harry Truman. A president for whom the buck never stops is not just a person of bad character; he is also rendered untrustworthy as a leader. What kind of morality is it, Kerry should ask, in which a leader not only fails to take responsibility for his own actions but also avoids having the high officials who work for him do so? Kerry should declare that a president should be not only a political leader but also a moral leader, one who upholds the highest standards of morality by the way he conducts himself in office. Kerry should say a president should not be a model for passing blame onto others.

    This administration, so strongly supported by the remnants of what used to be called the moral majority, is one of the most immoral of recent times. Its values are ones that no good-thinking American should emulate. Kerry should say that and say it strongly.

    Jorge Ramos, journalist and anchorman for Noticiero Univision, the largest Spanish-language evening news program in America

    Typically, about 70 percent of Latinos tend to vote for the Democratic Party and 30 percent for the Republican Party. However, in this election, the Latino vote is up for grabs. The Republican Party has realized that many Latinos hold traditional views on family, divorce and abortion, even though Latinos side with the Democrats when it comes to issues such as bilingual education, immigration, America's relationship with Latin America, and affirmative action.

    The Republican Party is trying to woo the Hispanic vote by appealing to these traditional values, and this creates an enormous challenge to the Democrats. The first thing the Democrats can do to better reach Hispanic voters is to emphasize that John Kerry is a Catholic: 80 percent of Latinos are Catholic.

    The second key issue for the Democrats is family. Latinos believe that families in Latin America are stronger than in the United States, and that values are stronger in Latin America than in the United States. So if Democrats want to woo the Hispanic vote, they should emphasize Kerry's family and his family members. This is a strategy that President Bush used when he was running in 2000; he campaigned with many of his family members to try to get the Hispanic vote.

    Another important thing to recognize is that many Latinos were expecting Gov. Bill Richardson from New Mexico to be chosen as the vice presidential candidate. But Democrats should emphasize two things about John Edwards: First, that he's very young. Hispanic voters are very young -- 10 years younger than the average voter. And second, they should emphasize John Edwards' personal rags-to-riches story, which is very appealing to many Hispanic immigrants.

    I think Democrats have learned their lesson from 2000. They're emphasizing Kerry's Catholic background, and they're recognizing the importance of family and getting Teresa Heinz, who speaks Spanish fluently, more involved in the campaign. Even though Latinos don't say it's a deciding factor whether a candidate speaks Spanish or not, the majority of Latinos appreciate it when candidates try to speak Spanish -- it's a way to recognize their background and their ethnicity.

    Danny Goldberg, author of "Dispatches From the Culture Wars: How the Left Lost Teen Spirit"

    John Kerry says, "We're all in the same boat." If most Americans come to believe that he really means it, he will win. Kerry needs to convince both religious families and Howard Stern fans that his vision of America respects and includes them.

    President Bush's mean-spirited administration has lost him any hope of being perceived as a "uniter not a divider." The political reality that made that line so popular in focus groups should inform Kerry's style. Part of Ronald Reagan's majoritarian charm was his ability to firmly disagree without seeming disagreeable.

    The stem cell research issue is a prime example of the distinction between Kerry's mainstream values and the irrational extremism that Bush has shown.

    In the past, Democrats have tried to compete with Republicans by mentioning the word "family" as much as possible. They should continue to stress that Democratic policies are better for families. However, Kerry must also reach out to single Americans. According to a recent Pew poll, Bush is 10 points up among married women (a little more than half of all women), while Kerry is a stunning 34 points up among single women. Aggregately single women are 24 percent of electorate (there are lots of single men too) -- but married people are more likely to vote. This is the moment to increase their turnout.

    There is no need to pander. Mentioning and humanizing single people and young people, occasionally letting them know that they as well as "families" have seats on the American "boat" will be a novelty in the context of recent political rhetoric and will pay political dividends.

    And the Kerry campaign should keep showing that photo of the young Kerry and John Lennon. Everyone between 40 and 60 years old wants to be on the same boat as the Beatles.

    Robert Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches

    My sense is that John Kerry is nervous about the Roman Catholics on the one hand, and he is uncomfortable because I think he puts all Protestants in the Jerry Falwell, Franklin Graham camp. He doesn't differentiate as much as he needs to between the conservatives and those of us who are moderate to progressive in our views, and who find God not to be a God of war as much as a God who cares about what we've done "unto the least of these," our brothers and sisters.

    Instead of speaking from a podium, John Kerry needs to spend more time having face-to-face experiences when he lands in a city. For example, if he's going to talk about the need to care for the poor and provide healthcare, visiting a health clinic in each of the cities he visits for a week would get his message out that he cares about providing full-access healthcare, particularly for those who are at the lowest end of the economic scale. There are 9 million children who have no healthcare, and clearly the Democrats care about that. Doing this type of meet-and-greet opportunity, rather than giving long speeches on the subject, would be helpful.

    The American faith community, particularly moderate to progressive Christians, want to see the gospel message lived out in the candidates. John Edwards seems a little more comfortable than Kerry doing that, but I think Kerry can learn how to do it. I have to add, though, that neither party has an edge on virtue or morality, and neither party should ever think that it's genetically right on all of its value questions. It's the nonverbal sermons that I think will work for both Kerry and for Bush.

    Alan Brinkley, professor of American history at Columbia University; author of "The End of Reform"

    Given the aggressive use of "values" as a tool of Republican campaigns, it was probably inevitable that John Kerry (or any other Democratic candidate) would have to reply in kind. But a debate on values is not one in which Democrats are likely to do well. Republicans have used the idea of "values" -- family values, religious values, conservative values -- as a substitute for engagement with real issues. They have done so as part of a successful effort to divert voters away from a rational assessment of their own interests and toward a preoccupation with a cluster of cultural stances and prejudices that have no legitimate place in political debate.

    Kerry has made an admirable effort to co-opt the term "values" and use it as a label for his position on issues that have real meaning -- taxes, social programs, foreign policy, the war in Iraq. But spending too much time presenting these important issues as "values" risks confusing voters and weakening the claims of Kerry's actual positions.

    If Kerry wants to speak about values, he should use the term not to describe concrete issues but to describe actual moral stances that contrast him favorably with his opponent. Such values would include honesty, hard work, tolerance, fairness, respect for other cultures and religions. Kerry's emphasis on inclusiveness is perhaps his best description of a value so far and reminds us of the Democratic Party's strong claim to the allegiance of an increasingly diverse population.

    By Compiled by Salon staff

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