There can be no more doubt about what today's GOP stands for. From mosques and birthrights to lazy laid-off workers, the Republican Party has concocted one way after another to pander to the most reactionary emotions of its base. But if Republicans win back Capitol Hill, they will have Democrats to thank. Because the Dems' timid rejoinder to the GOP's summer of demagoguery similarly reveals how afraid they are of debating our defining values. And like all fears, theirs is ultimately self-defeating.
The orchestrated absurdity surrounding a Muslim community center in lower Manhattan is but the latest, if most bald example of the GOP's attempt to conquer by division. The "debate" Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin and House Republicans have stirred couldn't be more divorced from reality. The center is neither a mosque nor located on Ground Zero. And local authorities, to whom conservative ideology professes deference, have resolved zoning issues to their satisfaction. But the facts don't matter. Republicans are building a cultural consensus, not making policy.
On the stump, candidates have dressed up their objections in sensitivity to the 9/11 families. For that logic to work, one has to assume both that no 9/11 families are Muslim and that Islam is defined by terrorism. It's an easy slide from either notion to Gingrich's comparison of the community center's developers with Nazis--a slur that defied both reason and decency.
Democrats have responded by pointing to the Constitution. But the mosque mania is no more about constitutional law than is the Republican leadership's sudden interest in the 14th Amendment. Nor, speaking of constitutional law, did the Republican bashing of Thurgood Marshall during Elena Kagan's confirmation hearings have a thing to do with weighing her judicial philosophy. Rather, all of these "debates" are successful attempts to turn policy questions into referendums on our national identity--who we are and what we value.
A CNN poll last week suggested the referendum results are lopsided. Nearly seven out of 10 respondents opposed plans "to build a mosque two blocks from the site" of 9/11. Nearly half favored rewriting the 14th Amendment in order to deny citizenship to the U.S.-born children of undocumented parents. Half also said they don't think gays and lesbians have a constitutional right to marriage.
What do all of these questions have in common? They concern issues Republicans have hammered and Democrats have dodged. On issue after issue, the Republicans' divisive ideas for America's core values win out because Democratic leaders refuse to articulate a set of progressive American values.
Much has been made of President Obama's back and forth on the Muslim community center. But even his initial statement hardly represented a spirited response to days worth of anti-Muslim vitriol.
"As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country," he said. "And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances."
Never mind the local ordinances. Palin was correct, sadly, when she responded to Obama by Tweeting, "We all know that they have the right to do it, but should they? This is not above your pay grade."
Obama convinced many voters--myself included--that whatever his politics, he was a leader capable of forcefully articulating a new set of values to guide America through perilous times. This summer has proven him either unwilling or unable to meet that charge.
He has said he isn't commenting on the "wisdom" of building the Muslim community center, but that's precisely what we so desperately need him to do. Are we the kind of community that holds religious plurality and freedom at its core or aren't we? Do we believe immigration enriches our communities or don't we? Are America's gay and lesbian relationships as legitimate as straight ones or aren't they? Are we a country that accepts nearly double-digit unemployment or not? Indeed, even on the economy, the real, agenda-shaping questions are value-based ones that Republicans consistently force and Democrats consistently dodge.
What's so striking is that one of the president's most widely lauded accomplishments came before he took office: His Philadelphia speech on race. Reportedly, top campaign advisers urged him not to give that speech, in order to avoid a distracting fight about race. Wisely, Obama recognized that race had become the main event--and that Republicans were going to beat on him whether he fought or not. We all saw what happened when he stood up and pushed back by passionately articulating a set of progressive values.
That's something Obama did again and again on the campaign trail, actually. On health care. On energy. On the economy. Yes, governing means moving the levers of government, not just running your mouth. But a values stance will always trump one that's focused on "local laws and ordinances" in the American political sphere. And as long as the president and his party avoid taking one, the Republican demagoguery will continue to dominate.