To the surprise of just about everyone, Rudolph Giuliani has yet to be struck by the righteous lightning of the Republicans' God wing, a fact that has led to speculation that the party may be prepared to lay down arms in the long-running culture war. Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City, is the first Republican in decades to muster an aura of viability, if not exactly inevitability, while remaining apostate on the core Republican values issues of abortion, gay rights and gun control.
If the gambit succeeds - and it's still a long shot - it will be proof that, among the Republican faithful, the fear of terrorism, Giuliani's signature issue, trumps the fear of cultural dissolution. But even a candidate like Giuliani, who has wrapped himself in 9/11, would not have been able to retreat from the front lines of the culture war had the enemy not already fled the field. And the Democrats have.
Unlike American society at large, where a raucous popular culture is more than a match for conservative mores, in the political arena the culture war has been a lopsided affair. Republicans have played offense, Democrats defense; it's not hard to figure out which party has benefited. The shorthand for the contest is "God, Guns and Gays," because in every election cycle Republicans raise the specter that the first two will be taken away by conniving Democrats while the third, in the form of patrons of a San Francisco leather bar, will be unleashed on an unsuspecting public. Abortion is the fourth wheel beneath the Republican values bus, to be rhetorically inflated or deflated as political necessity dictates.
Weary of being run over, Democrats lately have taken to dodging the traffic in "traditional values." Tactics, and results, vary depending on the issue. On guns, Democratic surrender is absolute. Most Democratic politicians, including many Southerners, agree that America's laissez-faire gun laws are positively insane in an age of terrorism. Yet the phrase "gun control" is about as welcome at party convocations as a stem-winder from Karl Rove. After a psychotic, armed with a legally-purchased arsenal, massacred dozens of people on the campus of Virginia Tech University, there was near total silence about the nation's lax gun laws. To the extent Democrats discuss guns at all, it is to reassure voters that they have no desire to restrict the rights of hunters or, for that matter, the ability of fetishists, terrorists, sadists or the otherwise unhinged to acquire vast private stockpiles of arms. We're all gun nuts now.
Democratic retreat on abortion is more nuanced. It required a hefty amount of arrogance for Democrats to find themselves on the defensive on this issue in the first place. After all, most Americans mostly agree with a pro-choice position. Yet by projecting militancy on abortion rights to an electorate that regarded the issue with misgivings, Democrats managed both to offend allies and inflame enemies.
The election of Harry Reid, who opposes abortion rights, as the Democratic leader in the Senate, marked a turning point. Not because Reid's ascension announced a change in policy but because it recognized abortion as a deeply personal, fundamentally moral issue about which reasonable people may disagree. The new ambivalence triumphed again when party leaders beat back pro-choice activists opposed to the Senate candidacy of anti-abortion Democrat Robert Casey, Jr. in Pennsylvania. Senator Hillary Clinton is the model of abortion rights ambivalence, encasing her support for legal abortion in a fuzzy gauze of remorse.
God, as always, is tricky business - especially for Democrats. It's no coincidence that Joe McCarthy acolyte Ann Coulter titled her latest screed, "Godless." Democrats can never mollify those who wish to rectify the Founders' original sin by inserting God into a more perfect Constitution. And the party's half-hearted efforts to infiltrate the suburban spiritual roadhouses that have lent so much brass to the Republican band have been a bust. While black Democrats like Barack Obama and John Lewis speak easily and credibly on Christianity, white Democrats, whose political consciousness is rarely formed in church, simply lack religious rhythm. In the 2004 presidential campaign, John Kerry could no more wear religion on his sleeve than dance the funky monkey.
In a 2006 poll, 69 percent of Americans said liberals had gone "too far" in trying to keep religion out of schools and public life. In response to a related question, nearly twice as many Americans viewed the Republican Party as "friendly" toward religion as viewed the Democrats that way. The stigma won't go away overnight.
But at least Democrats have stopped picking fights with evangelicals. More than a few evangelicals have grown suspicious of Republican pieties and may be ready to reevaluate their place in the political spectrum. The best strategy for white Democrats might be to stand still with their arms wide open and their mouths wired shut - lest they spoil the embrace.
The last wheel on the bus is gay rights. Democrats have retreated from gay rights only in the sense that a beachcomber retreats from a tsunami: They like the water fine, they just don't want to be swept away by it. This accounts for the cautious incoherence of the party's mainstream on gay marriage. Championing full legal rights for gays while withholding support for the symbolic rite of marriage makes no sense - unless you're trying to win elections while waiting for the public's support for gay marriage to catch up to your own.
Waiting, after all, is the progressive party's burden. (It's a burden Republicans contend they alone shoulder on issues like Social Security and education.) If History's on your side, the thinking goes, you eventually find yourself in the majority. And on a number of divisive social issues, Democrats have reason to believe time is an ally.
The "traditional values" that form the alleged bedrock of the GOP are no more immutable and enduring than core values popularly associated with Democrats. Indeed, the minority of Americans who genuinely subscribe to "traditional values" of say, mid-20th Century America, are widely considered bigots and crackpots. Their racial prejudices, sexual politics and religious practices are archaic.
So at some point in the not too distant future, Democrats may be able to stop dodging the traffic in values and start directing it. Public support for gay rights has accrued with stunning speed, making eventual acceptance of gay marriage a foregone conclusion. Regardless of what happens to Roe v. Wade, abortion is likely to fade from public view due to advances in technology and pharmacology, like the morning-after pill, that render it an ever more private matter.
As for God, he may be omnipresent but his role in domestic politics tends to be cyclical. If America is prone to great awakenings, it is in part because of more spiritually sleepy interregnums during which science and philosophy - not to mention secularists and even the occasional atheist - manage to have a say.
If Rudolph Giuliani's candidacy hastens the demise of a GOP values coalition that lately has shown signs of fatigue, Democrats are sure to benefit. But sooner or later, with or without Giuliani, the coalition was bound to crumble, creating an opening for a Democratic alternative. After all, in politics and culture, seasons turn and values change. Until then, see you at the gun show.