Meet "moral values," the Republican Party's imaginary friend. They go everywhere together, especially in the red states. Sometimes, when Rush Limbaugh is really loaded, he can actually see his imaginary friend.
It's amazing how quickly myths become facts in modern politics. If you allowed yourself to believe the breathless (and often mindless) talking heads on cable television, you might have been led to think that the crucial issue of this past election was an amorphous concept called "moral values."
Depending on how much airtime they have to fill, pundits have described moral values as opposition to abortion, opposition to gay marriage, opposition to "democratic atheism" and opposition to the teaching of evolution.
More importantly, we're told that only conservatives can channel these spirits. Sure, Americans are a fairly religious population, but it's impossible to believe that the entire country has suddenly decided to become Plymouth Colony in the space of one election.
Who are America's moral leaders? Apparently, the lesson of this election is that scripture-quoting politicos are the new moral authorities.
This part is where thinking men have to do a double take. Politicians are being looked upon as moral authorities? Has this class of civil servant ever been trusted farther than one can be thrown? The reality is that Americans place "moral values" very low on their list of priorities in choosing a leader.
This fact was obscured in 2004 because the Democratic candidate failed to define himself before the GOP did it for him. In the face of conflicting information, voters turned to see if John Kerry could give them a clear picture of what he represented. On the issue that troubled voters most -- the war in Iraq -- Kerry chose a disastrous "moderate" position that was difficult to distinguish from Bush's.
If you don't know who I am, you're likely to believe what others say about me. An aggressive ad campaign painted Kerry as feckless and indecisive. Kerry foolishly assumed that nobody would actually believe the Karl Rove-linked Swift Boat Veterans. Delegates at the Republican National Convention wore "purple heart" band-aids to suggest that Kerry must have been hit by Nerf balls in Vietnam.
If that wasn't bad enough, flyers circulated in West Virginia suggested that democrats, led by John Kerry, wanted to ban Bibles. Despite taking a public stand against gay marriage, Kerry was unable to counter accusations that he "secretly supported it."
This wasn't a religious revival; it was a smear campaign. It was very effective against a Kerry operation that seemed afraid to show its teeth in response.
Four years ago, Bill Clinton left office in peacetime with approval ratings that Bush needed wars to match. Clinton, the two-term Democrat, the most publicly humiliated man of the late twentieth century, the adulterer, the pro-choice politician, the man who never served in a war but cut military budgets, was the most popular man in the country when he stepped down.
According to the "moral values" calculus, Clinton never should have set foot in public office. But, Bill Clinton was a man who connected with the American public. Even his bitter opponents have testified as to his enormous personal charisma.
He could be defiant when his personal failures were drawn across the nation's TV screens. The supposedly puritanical American public, whom we are told wants nothing but good Christian statesmen, somehow produced poll results separating Clinton's personal life from his job performance.
Bill Clinton is living proof that America doesn't demand saints in office. Why did Clinton get a pass while John Kerry, a decorated veteran and a man of character, was cast aside? He didn't strike a chord with voters. After communism and before terrorism, people cared about the economy most, and Clinton delivered.
After terrorism, John Kerry had to offer voters a clear break with the dire path of George Bush. Unable to deliver, Kerry was judged on secondary issues related to his opponent's mudslinging. And no, for the record, he doesn't want to ban Bibles and he's not an atheist.
Why does the right have a monopoly on moral values? Because they say so!
Remember Bob Dole? He sells penis pills while kids watch TV. Rush Limbaugh has pills of his own. Many people have forgotten that Bill O'Reilly rose out of the cottage industry surrounding the Bill Clinton sex hearings. O'Reilly's new children's book probably doesn't include the most important lesson that he has taught us -- you can buy your way out of sexual harassment lawsuits.
Why are these people still able to cling to moral authority? It's a matter of communication.
In the absence of any really strong liberal voices, nobody can call these hypocrites to account. Unwilling to dignify slanderous accusations with a response, a combat veteran is made to look like a coward. Without a strong Democratic Party to keep them honest, Republicans ignore Arnold Schwarzenegger's previous drug use, abuse of women and his expressed enthusiasm for orgies -- as long as he can win election. The same party will accuse a veteran with one limb of being weak on defense.
When conservatives take scorched-earth politics this far, Democrats need to recognize that in defining themselves, they can never be clean enough, patriotic enough, holy enough or suffer enough to overcome a political machine that creates its own headlines and authors its own realities. If we play the GOP's game and try to quote scriptures, compromise on gay rights, or give so much as a minute of class time to creationism, we lose permanently.