Like Jonathan Menitove, I’d like nothing more come November 2006 than to send Rick Santorum packing (“Left’s winning strategy: swing (a bit) to the right,” 3/30). From his advocacy of legislative gay-bashing as “homeland security” to his stealth attempt this month to roll back the 40-hour work week, the third-most powerful Senate Republican represents the very worst of the radical clique now running this country. That’s why beating Santorum and fighting back his agenda requires not the feint to the right Menitove applauds, but running a candidate ready to go toe-to-toe and offer a progressive alternative on every issue.
Menitove is right to observe that the Democrats are losing the votes of Americans who express agreement with their economic policy but disagreements over so-called “social issues.” The brilliance of the Republican strategy, as Thomas Frank has argued, is in reframing issues like abortion or marriage rights as aesthetic class struggles between the values of “liberal elites” and regular Americans. Beating that strategy back requires talking candidly about America’s deepening class divide and offering progressive economic alternatives that too many Democrats — cowed by charges of “class warfare” or fear of sacrificing corporate donations — have refused to suggest. It also requires making a better case for equal rights and personal choice and against the extremism of a party whose platform would have us constitutionalize bans on abortion and gay adoption.
No Democrat, not even Gov. Bob Casey’s son, can outflank the party of Santorum and Bush on dedication to stripping women of their right to choose. What anti-choice Democrats can do is alienate scores of Democratic-leaning voters, particularly in Pennsylvania’s suburban swing counties, just as Ron Klink did in his failed race against Santorum five years ago. And they can further set back the work of progressive Democrats in winning the support of the majority of Americans who are personally anxious about abortion but opposed to its restriction. Pennsylvanians know that the single best way to return women’s wombs to the control of the state is to elect a Senate that will put up no resistance to Bush’s extremist nominees — judges equally committed to eroding the Democratic values Casey supports, like rights at work, and the ones he doesn’t, like the right to choose. And they know — and will be reminded for the next year and a half — that no one would work harder to get those judges onto the bench than Rick Santorum. What Pennsylvanians need is a Democratic candidate who will make the case for why those appointments would be a disaster.
Winning requires offering pragmatic policies to make abortion more safe, more legal and more rare, by empowering women with the freedoms and the resources to exercise greater choice in all areas of life. Winning requires exposing and rejecting the Republican assault on sexual education and sexual choice. John Kerry might have done this during the presidential debate if he hadn’t been busy telling Americans that his wife didn’t want them to have abortions. The talking heads who suggest that Democrats can best sell their position on abortion by running more candidates who disagree with it either know better or should.
Building not just an electoral majority for Democrats but a progressive consensus behind the best values of the party requires running candidates who represent those values and are forthright in standing up for them. Seeking out candidates who share the opposition’s views on contentious issues is a losing strategy in the short term for the party, and a long-term disaster for the people it purports to represent. If the Democrats want to come out of the next midterm elections with results more like the Republicans’ sweeping victory in 1994 than their own party’s dismal showing in 2002, they should take to heart the urgency of offering real alternatives.
Pennsylvanians deserve better than Rick Santorum, and we deserve better than a candidate who would run on his similarity to Santorum on a crucial issue facing our state and our country between now and 2012. All the more so this month, as the vast majority of Americans have rejected the Republican assault on Terri Schiavo’s personal choice and family privacy masquerading as a “culture of life.” As Chuck Pennacchio, Casey’s opponent in the Democratic primary, has argued, “We can either choose to eliminate rights or improve lives, and I choose to improve lives … Nobody wants to see another abortion, but what we need to do is make our society a stronger, more supportive environment, in which women will have a real choice.”
Josh Eidelson is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College.