Lots of commentators have fixed on Bush's use of the language of personal morality to explain why Kerry lost. Robert Reich makes the case that Democrats need to get in touch with their inherent social morality—rather than policy prescriptions—in order to win. Will it be enough? Jim Wallis and Rick Warren said on NewsHour last night that Democrats need to get in touch with both personal and social virtues. Stay tuned.
Robert B. Reich is the Maurice B. Hexter Professor of Social and Economic Policy at Brandeis University, and was the secretary of labor under former President Bill Clinton.
Republicans ran on a moral agenda—God, guns, gays and true grit in fighting the evils of Saddam Hussein and terrorism. Democrats ran on a policy agenda—affordable health care, deficit reduction and combating terrorism through stronger international alliances and a smarter strategy. George Bush spoke about right and wrong in moral terms—as matters of righteousness and faith. John Kerry spoke of right and wrong in pragmatic terms—for example, saying he had the right way to get the economy moving again or to fight Al Qaeda, and George Bush was going the wrong way.
I don’t think most Americans rejected John Kerry’s policies. It was Bush’s moral vision they found more compelling. When politicians talk about having a plan for this or a policy for that, many eyes glaze over. But when they speak with righteous indignation—with passion and conviction about what is morally right to do or morally offensive—they can inspire the nation.
My recommendation to Democrats is not to become more religious. Religion is a personal matter. But perhaps Democrats need somewhat fewer plans and policies, and a bit more moral conviction. They also need to talk more about faith—faith in what this great nation can accomplish if we work together.
Democrats used to talk in moral terms—about fighting for civil rights, for example. What could Democrats say now and in the future? That it’s morally wrong to give huge tax cuts to the rich while cutting social programs for the poor and working class—especially when the gap between the rich and everyone else is wider than it’s been in more than a century. That we have a moral obligation to give every American child a good education and decent health care. That it’s morally wrong that millions of Americans who work full time don’t earn enough to keep their families out of poverty.
My faith—and yes, it is a matter of faith, a great leap of faith—is that in all these respects, and many more, this nation can become a more just society.
I’m not saying Democrats have to adopt my particular moral positions. But unless or until Democrats return to larger questions of public morality, they won’t inspire the American public. Plans and policies are important, of course. But there’s no substitute for offering a vision of what we can become as a nation—and giving citizens the faith we can get there.
This commentary originally appeared on Marketplace, public radio's only daily business news program, and is reprinted via a special arrangement between TomPaine.com and Robert Reich. Marketplace is produced by Minnesota Public Radio and is heard on 322 public radio stations nationwide. More online at www.marketplace.org.