Monday, November 08, 2004

New England - Blue States on the Fringe

Yesterday's Providence Sunday Journal had a predictable, but informative, story concerning the political and financial repercussions that will be felt by the Ocean State and her New England neighbors as a result of their lock-step Democrat voting patterns.
There is this harsh reality for New England Democrats in presidential politics: Eight times in elections since 1968, a prominent Democrat from the region has been on a losing Democratic ticket or run unsuccessfully for his party's nomination.

President Bush's close but clear-cut victory over Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry means that, "you can be born in New England, you can be educated in New England, but you can't run from New England," says Garrison Nelson, a University of Vermont political scientist and expert in the region's politics.
Nelson has a point. Since 1972, Edmund Muskie, Ted Kennedy, Michael Dukakis, Joe Lieberman, Howard Dean and John Kerry have all made credible bids for President and come up short. However, it is simplistic to say that it was because they were all from New England that they were unpalatable to the national electorate. Rather, it was the nature of their politics, a liberal message delivered with an implied "we know what's good for you" tone, that failed to catch on with the south and midwest.
What is more, a region that historically had powerful senators and U.S. House members now has little clout in conservative, Republican Washington. No state in the region voted for Mr. Bush; the president even lost New Hampshire, a state he carried in 2000. Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont voters all gave Kerry victories of better than 20 percentage points; Kerry won big, too, in Connecticut, and comfortably in Maine.

From just after the end of World War II until 1987, a Massachusetts representative held the House speaker's chair for 23 years; Republican moderate Joseph Martin of Attleboro served four years; Democrat John McCormack of Boston was speaker for nine years; and Thomas "Tip" O'Neill, of Cambridge, led the House for a decade. Maine Democrat George Mitchell served as Senate majority leader and Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy had a stint as Senate Democratic whip.

Now, No New Englanders are in top leadership positions in either the GOP-controlled House or Senate, and such moderates as Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee have no friends in the White House.
Add to the list the two moderate Republican Senators from Maine (Olympia Snow and Susan Collins) and it becomes obvious that even those Republicans that the region has sent to Washington are on the fringe of their party. This can be a blessing, though, because they can wield some clout as their crucial votes will be needed to break Senate filibusters. Nonetheless, reduced overall political influence within the party in power translates to fewer "goodies" for the states that continually send members of the minority party to Washington. For his part, Sen. Jack Reed recognizes the danger:
What also worries Reed is that the Republicans will move to slice the region's share of federal money that is distributed to states under complicated mathematical formulas that support such programs as housing for the poor, medical research and education.

"These formula fights are ferocious," says Reed. "I got my staff together on Wednesday afternoon and . . . said we can't be down about this, we have to get right back to work for the people of Rhode Island on the isssues we care about."
The article also made note of the disparity between New England and the "Red States" on social issues.
On these issues, too, New England is sailing against the national wind. Eleven states had same-sex marriage bans as ballot questions; they won overwhelmingly everywhere, even in Oregon, the Vermont of the West Coast.

Vermont has had civil unions for almost five years. Most Vermonters have accepted the institution and there is no movement to repeal the civil union law. In Massachusetts, no legislator who suppported same-sex marriages lost his or her seat last week.

[Tip] O'Neill, the avuncular House Speaker, was fond of saying that most people view politics from the prism of their kitchen window; they vote on such basic economic issues as whether they have good jobs and believe their children will have career opportunities.

Last week's election showed that a significant slice of voters in the states of the Midwest and the old Confederacy see politics through the prism of a stained-glass church window.
It is this last which seems to confound many Democrats who believe that economic issues stood them in good stead this election. However this seemed based on their rhetoric not on the reality. (I'm not going to go into the Democrat assertions of a bad Bush economy compared to the reality of Clinton like unemployment numbers, etc.) As Kate O'Beirne noted recently in the Washington Post:
Republicans don't talk patronizingly about the issues that matter to voters by telling average Americans to "vote their pocketbooks." Rich Hollywood liberals might put aside their own economic interests to support a candidate who pledges to raise their taxes, but the little people leading small lives in small towns are not expected to look beyond their parochial concerns about overtime pay or health benefits. Leaving aside whether Democratic prescriptions on taxes and the economy would actually benefit these middle-class voters, Bush recognizes that they, too, care about issues larger than themselves. Despite Ohio's poor economy, moral values almost tied jobs as a matter of concern to the state's voters, who -- by the way -- also gave the edge to Bush in handling economic issues.

Bush recognizes that American diners are filled with middle-class voters who likewise have concerns that transcend their daily lives. He let them know that he shared their worries about marriage and its weakening as society's most fundamental institution, about the chilling brave new world of cloning and about the coarsening of the culture -- at the hands of Kerry's Hollywood supporters. The guests enjoying dinner at Tina Brown's sparkling table have not had their daily lives affected by Halliburton's no-bid contracts, the USA Patriot Act or missing munitions in Iraq, yet these are the kinds of issues that motivate liberal elites.

Bush believes Americans are smart and unfailingly decent. He doesn't think southern conservatives are closet racists, that opponents of gay marriage are hateful homophobes or that pro-lifers are mean-spirited misogynists. He is well aware that America's liberal media (and as well as European commentators) view him as a dangerous fool. Nonetheless, the majority of high school and college graduates voted for him.
Some, such as Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, realize that the Democrats have some work to do on the morality front:
"We Democrats better think long and hard about what happened . . . and how our party is going to connect with the hopes and aspirations of the people," Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., said last week. "We have lost the ability to connect with people's value systems and we're going to have to work to get that back."
The problem is that, to a large degree, the politicians in New England simply reflect the morality of their constituents.
New England is "closer to Canada on these social issues than most of the rest of the United States," says Brown University political scientist Darrell West...Such scholars as Nelson, the University of Vermont political scientist, a Boston native, and Anthony Corrado, a Colby College political scientist and Barrington native, believe the region's differences on social issues are rooted in history.

"Are you surprised that a state founded by Roger Williams supports separation of church and state?" says Corrado, referring to the 17th-century father of church-state separation who was Rhode Island's first white settler. [I'm not]

Even in rural parts of New England, evangelical movements are not strong, and haven't been since the Great Awakening of the 18th century, Corrado says.

New Englanders were steeled by generations of religious conflict in a region of tribal, ethnic and religion-generated fissures. "There was a time when you couldn't put Congregationalists, Catholics and Jews in the same room," says Nelson.

It seems hard to fathom today, but New England was plagued by religious intolerance, even violence, especially in the anti-immigrant Nativist wave in the early 20th century. Native Protestants burned Catholic convents and the Ku Klux Klan even had a foothold in rural Rhode Island; the target was not blacks, as in the South, but Catholics.

"There was virulent anti-Semitism among the Irish in Boston and other European ethnics," says Nelson.

The Ivy League colleges that are among the region's top educational assets had unspoken quotas for Jews.

"These religious conflicts held the region back for many years, but after the 1960s things changed," says Nelson. "The leadership class in New England basically decided that we would be better off without all this conflict."

Interfaith marriages and a knowledge-based economy have also winnowed religious divisions in the region, says Nelson, which has made New England states more like each other politically than red-state America.
This history of religious tension is characteristic of a dense population made up of disparate groups. In the so-called "Red States", such diversity doesn't occur as much where communities are more isolated and more homogenous. However, religious tolerance shouldn't necessarily mean religious abandonment, as has occurred with rising secularism (a religion of sorts, itself, I would argue) in the Northeast and West Coast. Additionally, while differing perceptions of morality explain the Red/Blue divide, as O'Beirne alluded, perhaps those of us who vote Republican, regardless of our geographical location, have actually exhibited a bit more "nuance" than our more "enlightened" liberal opponents would like to admit.
There is one great irony in Kerry's loss, says Corrado.

"Gay marriage in particular was a galvanizing issue," he says.

But it probably would never have vaulted to the forefront of campaign topics without the Supreme Judicial Court decision in Kerry's home state last spring that legalized gay unions.

"It was the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court that allowed President Bush to really get a focus on this issue."
Here, simply, Corrado is wrong. President Bush didn't focus on the issue, his opponent did. What the issue did highlight was that the judiciary was untrustworthy in matters concerning legal definitions of morality or traditional institutions that have upheld said moral values. Thus, it wasn't gay marriage, per se, that threatened people so much as the fear that, regardless of one's own personal view, it is the citizen who should decide, not an un-elected judge. In other words, what troubled many voters was not necessarily the outcome so much as the vehicle by which a revered social institution (marriage) was redefined. Recent history has shown that what liberals can't accomplish via the ballot box they instead pursue via the judiciary. A majority of Americans have had enough of this tactic and believe that keeping George W. Bush as President ensures that fewer "interpretive" judges will be named to the federal bench.

The majority of New England voters apparently don't prioritize their reasons for voting for a presidential candidate in the same manner. Now, we in New England find ourselves on the outside looking in. Yet, there is some hope for the New England-style of moderate Republican, as explained by O'Beirne:
Republicans were mocked when popular social liberals Rudy Giuliani and Arnold Schwarzenegger were showcased to make their party's case on national security and economic opportunity at the national convention in New York. What Democrats saw on the podium were dissident Republican politicians with enlightened views on abortion and gay marriage who had been enlisted in order to deceive voters; what we were all actually looking at was the makings of a successful majority party.

The moderate Republicans who spoke at the convention are at home in their conservative, pro-life party and represent countless others who share their views on such issues as foreign policy, tax rates or tort reform. Political parties are coalitions, and elections are won when a self-confident party can remain faithful to its core principles while appealing to voters with different priorities. President Bush's success exemplifies that approach: He is unapologetically opposed to abortion but passes no judgment on those who disagree with him and encourages them to find common cause with him elsewhere. Last year, Sen. John Kerry was calling pro-lifers "the forces of intolerance."
In fact, with the exception of our own Congressman Jim Langevin, I'm hardpressed to name a pro-life Democrat. They simply won't allow it and one believes that Langevin's unique personal story is the only reason that he gets a pass. As such, it seems that now the Republicans are the "big-tent" party. Unfortunately for most of New England, we're on the outside, on our hands and knees, attempting to peer under the canvas.

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