Beyond the Talking Points
For too long the Democratic Party has let Republicans define and redefine the debate over America's political issues. Buzzwords like "pro-life" and "climate change" have skewed the way many Americans see, think and talk about the issues. The problem historically for liberal candidates is that they usually have complex, well-reasoned opinions that are too complicated to communicate in a single sentence (see: Al Gore, John Kerry), while conservatives are able to express themselves in simple sound-bites (see: George W. Bush).
Now that the Democrats have taken back congress, they have a mandate and the ability to push forth their own agenda and set the tone for America's political conversation. But, if the Democrats wish to achieve lasting success, particularly in 2008, they will need to learn from the Republicans, and change the words with which that conversation is held. Here are two areas where they need to redefine their argument in order to be successful.
One: The debate over abortion is not between "pro-choice" and "pro-life," it is between "pro-choice" and "anti-choice." Both sides are "pro-life." No one has any interest in or desire to kill innocent human beings; the issue is about when life begins and the necessity of reproductive rights for preserving general liberty. Every abortion is a tragedy -- every single one -- and the Democrats need to say that. Unwanted pregnancies could be allowed to mature into babies, which would then be given up for adoption at birth, but this might not be a viable solution given the overcrowding of the world's orphanages or the psychological problems common among adopted children.
The notion that human life begins at fertilization is similarly flawed because it equates the potential life of a zygote with the present life of a human being. It also legally hinders the progress of science in curing diseases like Parkinson's or Alzheimer's through embryonic stem cell research.
The only question is whether someone supports a women's right to choose to continue her pregnancy or favors government intervention in such personal issues. Even those who are against abortion rights must admit that a ban on abortion opens the floodgate to government regulation of our bodies.
The biggest instance of hypocrisy among groups that call themselves "pro-life" are the exceptions they allow in proposed abortion bans for rape or incest. If they believe that life begins at fertilization, and every life is worth protecting, they make the assumption that a pregnancy resulting from rape or incest is somehow less valuable and unworthy of life.
"Pro-life" itself is a misnomer because those who identify as such are usually in favor of the death penalty. The Democrats' official stance that abortion should be "safe, legal and rare" is one shared by a majority of the population and they should capitalize upon this support by clarifying their message.
Two: Gay marriage is not about redefining marriage or giving homosexuals special rights, it is about extending family values to all Americans. For a group that promotes the family as the bedrock of society, conservatives are awfully reluctant to allow all willing couples to share its benefits.
Those that argue that marriage is a religious institution that the government has no right to regulate will be led to a vastly different logical conclusion than they intend.
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution begins, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." If marriage is an "establishment of religion" then clearly the Establishment Clause prevents the government from recognizing marriage for any legal purposes, including taxes or contracts. For those that say that marriage is intended solely for rearing children, I challenge them to nullify all heterosexual marriages between couples that cannot conceive or those who choose not to.
The argument against gay marriage ultimately boils down to discrimination. Marriage is based on the love and commitment that people feel for each other, and by imposing limits on who can engage in such a relationship we essentially acknowledge that the love that homosexuals feel for each other is not of the same worth as that which heterosexuals feel for each other.
America can only benefit from the stability that gay marriage would produce; their family structure would allow them to adopt and raise children in a traditional environment (the argument that gay families will raise gay children is invalid because straight families have obviously not always raised straight children). If it is our country's goal to "defend the sanctity of marriage," why don't we start with the laws that lead the abominable trend for one in every two marriages consecrated today to end in divorce?
Talking points are like commercials: they look good and sound nice, but generally offer little insight into the product they represent. The day that politicians stop treating Americans like consumers is the day that they stop buying. If the Democrats can redefine the debate over social issues in their terms by getting to the substance behind them, they may be able to recapture support eroded to the Republicans in recent years and achieve lasting success.