Sunday, December 17, 2006


Are Democrats Ready To Embrace The Center In The Culture War?

(Published by the Salt Lake Tribune Dec. 17, 2006)

Everyone agrees the Iraq War was the primary stumbling block for Republicans in the recent midterm elections. In addition to the Iraq problem, Republican strategists appear to have settled on corruption, arrogance and incompetence as secondary factors that require corrective action.

This diagnosis is accurate but incomplete. Democrats won in Republican territory only because they were willing to change strategy in the Culture War—a war that has been as damaging to Democratic prospects in recent elections as the Iraq War was to Republican prospects this time around.

If you haven’t heard about the change in strategy you are not alone. Republicans are blinded by the enormity of the Iraq issue and Democrats are reluctant to shine a spotlight on a localized strategy that conflicts with the national party platform. But many values-voters who switched allegiance from Republican to Democratic candidates this election cycle are well aware of the shift in strategy. In many cases it was the first time in decades that voters could vote for a Democrat who was pro-life, against legalization of same-sex marriage, supported responsible firearm ownership, was comfortable talking about his or her own personal faith and willing to allow everyone—including Christians—the opportunity to express their own faith in the public square.

One can only wonder why it took the Democrats so long to figure out that a change in strategy was necessary. The handwriting—in the form of public opinion polls—has been on the wall for everyone to read for a very long time. And what is written on the wall? It might surprise you to know that America isn’t really equally divided on these cultural issues. It’s true that loyal Democrats and Republicans are equally divided on these issues, but independent voters—often referred to as the silent majority—are not. The dirty little secret of the Culture War is that it’s an artificial stalemate created by extremists on the right and left and perpetuated by a media environment that thrives on conflict and whose members often sympathize with one side or the other.

The evidence supporting this claim can be found in a wide variety of polls and several books published in recent years. For example, a national survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in mid 2006 found that “despite talk of culture wars and the high visibility of activist groups on both sides of the cultural divide, there has been no polarization of the public into liberal and conservative camps.”

Specifically, the Pew study found that 66% of Americans think that abortion should not be generally available. There isn’t complete agreement on what restrictions should be in place, but there is agreement that current abortion law is not restrictive enough. The study also found that 56% of Americans oppose gay marriage and only 35% favor it.

The Pew study didn’t cover the other Culture War issues I’ve mentioned—gun control and church-state issues— but Harris, Gallup and other polling organizations have. Harris consistently reports that 60% of Americans favor stricter gun control and an even larger 70% majority favors stricter control of assault weapons. And on church-state issues, Gallup found that 54% of Americans think that state sponsorship of religion is harmful, but 58% support the right of any religion to exercise free speech in the public square.

This fledgling foothold in the political center is a good start, but Democrats will need a more substantial effort to win in 2008. The Iraq War will certainly be a greatly diminished issue by then, and the other war—the Culture War—will return to prominence. Will the liberal base of the party swallow its ideological pride and embrace a more extensive alliance with the silent majority? I hope so. It could be an important first step in putting this divisive Culture War behind us.

Friday, December 08, 2006


Playing Politics As Usual With The Land Bill

(Published by The Spectrum Dec. 5, 2006)

Voters in nearly every region of the country delivered a very unmistakable message to politicians of all stripes in the recent midterm election. In addition to overwhelming displeasure with the lack of progress in Iraq, Americans are clearly tired of arrogant politicians who fudge the truth and fatten their own wallets while in public service—practices otherwise known as politics as usual.

Utah did not add its voice to the choir of discontent, primarily because a majority of Utahans believe the long-term possibilities in Iraq are worth the short-term pain, and secondarily, because most of us assume that our elected officials come fully equipped with Utah ethics.

It’s an admirable extension of trust, but one that should be questioned in light of the recent political maneuvering associated with the Washington County land bill. Sen. Bob Bennett and Washington County Commissioner Alan Gardner are utilizing nearly every trick in the book to sneak the bill through the current lame-duck session of Congress.

Pushing any bill through a lame-duck Congress is border-line behavior to begin with. But Sen. Bennett really stepped over the line when he realized the land bill could not pass on its own merits. Instead, Bennett will lurk in the shadows of the Senate hoping to attach it as a late night “rider” to a funding bill. It’s exactly the kind of political gamesmanship that gives politics a bad name. If Senators vote the land bill down, the funding bill also bites the dust and government programs could be shut down. A vote against the combined bill would be the equivalent of turning down a gift automobile that you really need only because there is a box of stuff in the trunk you don’t want. Nearly everyone would take the gift car in spite of the undesirable cargo in the trunk. And if Bennett has his way, that’s what the Senate will do—pass the funding vehicle and then hand Bennett the land bill he slipped in the trunk. This less-than-honest political trick is not something we should expect or tolerate from a Senator from Utah.

Bennett also appears to have contracted a case of Washington D.C. arrogance. When asked in a Senate committee meeting why he won’t withdraw the bill and resubmit it next year—after the citizen-based Vision Dixie planning process is complete—this is what he said:

“There is nothing we will learn next year that we don't already know."

His arrogant statement offers quite an insight into what Bennett really thinks of the Vision Dixie process, and by extension, what he thinks of input in general from common citizens like you and me.

Commissioner Gardner also testified in the same Senate committee meeting and had this to say about how the bill was developed:

“We wanted all the stakeholders to be involved and their issues to be heard, and they were. We were very sensitive to the fact that if we were to err, we should err in favor of too much public participation rather than not enough.....To summarize, this has been a truly grassroots project.”

You might think Gardner was actually describing the grassroots Vision Dixie process. But the bill was drafted and submitted long before Vision Dixie was even a thought, let alone a reality. Public outrage with the bill, not a new-found respect for citizen involvement, forced the county commission into sponsoring the Vision Dixie process.

In reality, the bill was developed by a committee of 16 who were selected and directed by the Washington County Commission—a trio with a track record of promoting growth-on-steroids. In a county of 130,000 residents, the process doesn’t come close to qualifying as a grassroots project or as a process that involved all stakeholders. A few of the 16 members were so frustrated with the pro-growth committee that they dropped out and now actively oppose the bill.

Finally, with Commissioner Gardner it’s always difficult to distinguish between what’s good for the county and what’s good for Mr. Gardner. Gardner already stands to make millions on the Ledges development project. Is he angling to obtain a portion of the 25,000 acres of public land the bill promises to developers in order to extend the real life game of monopoly he is playing with county land? His current project is high rent real estate overlooking Snow Canyon State Park and might appropriately have been designated Park Place instead of The Ledges. Maybe he has his eyes on Boardwalk too.

I hope the questionable political tactics of Bennett and Gardner fail. And if they succeed, we can ensure their shameful tactics are not a part of Utah’s future by voting them out of office. Unfortunately, their land bill legacy would enable a future of urban sprawl, traffic jams and endless vistas of rooftops for residents of Washington County. That would be a real shame for all Utahans.

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