The New England Factor

Article excerpt

HAS THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY MOVED TO NEW ENGLAND?

By Ken Von Kohorn

In the race for the 2004 Democratic Presidential nomination, tiny New England produced the top two contenders. Though Vermont's former governor Howard Dean eventually flamed out like a Roman candle, his candidacy usefully revealed the depth of Democratic hostility toward the Bush Presidency. With the Dean detritus cleared away, Massachusetts' Senator John Kerry had little difficulty tapping into rank-and-file anger and seizing the Democratic prize.

Apart from a pure geographic coincidence, is there anything about New England itself that might explain its prominence in the 2004 Democratic Presidential quest? Paradoxically, the answer may be revealed by the electoral impotence of a nearly-forgotten third New Englander: Joe Lieberman. The Connecticut senator enjoyed immediate recognition and credibility as Al Gore's 2000 running mate. But his pro-war views and centrist credentials proved unattractive to the Democratic faithful this time around. His Presidential candidacy devolved into something like driving through a small New England village: If you blinked, you missed it.

The contrast between the views of Joe Lieberman and those of his more successful New England peers in some ways mirrors the evolution of New England itself. In the beginning, New England was suffused with religious faith--its inhabitants brought their strong spiritual convictions to its shores. The muscular Christianity of founders like Massachusetts' John Adams informed governmental precepts we now take for granted, such as checks and balances (which presumes the fallibility of men). New England spawned great universities whose initial purpose was to train ministers. Yale's residential colleges still resound with names of New England's famed religious leaders: Timothy Dwight, Ezra Stiles, Jonathan Edwards. But over time, the great New England universities evolved into secular institutions--so much so that today's Ivy League scholars typically fail to understand or appreciate the importance of Judeo-Christian tenets to America's founding.

The Democratic Party, as an institution, has had a parallel evolution toward secularism. In recent years it has increasingly become the political home for those who are uncomfortable with the Bible Belt and its evangelicals. Blue collar "Reagan Democrats"--conservative on social issues and at ease with religious convictions--have dwindled in number as the leadership of the Democratic Party has moved away from policies informed by religious belief.

While campaigning in the South, Howard Dean's unsuccessful efforts to ingratiate himself with people of faith helped prove the point. Strike One: When asked to name his favorite book of the New Testament, he cited Job. Two: Dean acknowledged that he had left his church in Burlington, Vermont not on doctrinal issues, but over a dispute regarding a bicycle path. Three: A heckler at a campaign appearance insisted that the governor's acerbic criticisms of President Bush did not follow the Biblical admonition to "Love Thy Neighbor." Given a perfect opportunity to turn the other cheek, Dean instead railed that "George Bush is not my neighbor!"

Meanwhile, John Kerry has so far been unable or unwilling to appeal to voters who expect their leaders to exhibit religious convictions. Columnist David Brooks writes that, "Many people just want to know that their leader, like them, is in the fellowship of believers. Their President doesn't have to be a saint, but he does have to be a pilgrim. He does have to be engaged, as they are, in a personal voyage toward God ... John Kerry doesn't seem to get this. Many of the people running the Democratic Party don't get it either."

Joe Lieberman gets it, but he was summarily rejected by the primary voters. His strong religious credential (he is an Orthodox Jew who refuses to campaign on the Sabbath), which undoubtedly would have appealed to many Christian evangelicals if given the opportunity to come before them, did him no good in his own party. …