The Color Purple

WASHINGTON — The political map changed drastically in 2006 as Democrats won control of Congress and many governor mansions.

But when John DiIulio Jr. looks at a political map of the United States he doesn’t see Republican Red or Democratic Blue.

Instead, the former director of President Bush’s Office of Faith-Based Programs sees purple — the red-blue mixture of political attitudes held by the “pro-life, pro-family and pro-poor” majority of American voters. That majority, according to DiIulio, was responsible for much of the Democrats’ gains in the November midterm elections.

“There’s no way you would have had the success they had if they hadn’t fielded (pro-life and pro-family) candidates,” said DiIulio, a pro-life Democrat who now teaches political science at the University of Pennsylvania.

So now, with their mid-term victory in hand, what are the prospects that Democrats will seek to cement those electoral gains by shifting collectively towards a more life-, family- and faith-friendly platform?

Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life of America, said that Congressional Democrats are more pro-life already.

In the House, Democrats for Life said seven additional pro-life Democrats were elected: Heath Shuler in North Carolina; Charlie Wilson in Ohio; Jason Altmire and Chris Carney in Pennsylvania; and Joe Donnelly, Brad Ellsworth and Baron Hill in Indiana. Day said her organization now identifies about 36 House Democrats as pro-life.

In the Senate, Day hailed the victory in Pennsylvania of Bob Casey Jr., who campaigned as being pro-life on abortion. Casey, who defeated Republican incumbent Rick Santorum, is the son of the late Gov. Robert Casey of Pennsylvania.

Gov. Casey became a hero to pro-life Democrats after he was barred from speaking at the 1992 Democratic national convention because of his strong anti-abortion beliefs.

According to National Right to Life Committee’s 2005-2006 Congressional scorecard, only one Democratic senator in the 109th Congress scored above 50% on pro-life votes: Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska.

Said Day, “I think it’s very exciting to see the pro-life Democrats’ numbers increase, and having more of a voice in the party.”



However, others say the small gains in the number of pro-life Congressional Democrats are unlikely to generate a meaningful shift on life or family issues.

The skeptics point to the determination of leading Congressional Democrats to introduce legislation immediately to overturn President Bush’s restrictions on federal funding of embryo-killing stem cell research as evidence that the party remains as hostile as ever to pro-life perspectives (see story, page 3).

And the opposition of prominent Democrats to the proposed federal constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman is cited by the skeptics as evidence of the party’s anti-family orientation.

Matt Daniels, president of the Alliance for Marriage, said the marriage debate highlights the wide gap between the beliefs of the Democratic Party’s leadership and the more family-friendly beliefs of everyday Democrats.

The grassroots base of the Democratic Party lies among blacks, Hispanics, working-class Americans and Catholics, Daniels pointed out.

“On the marriage issue, our support is highest with those communities,” Daniels said. “But the big money in the party is behind the perspective of John Conyers, of Nancy Pelosi, of Barney Frank, of Howard Dean, which is very, very radical on subjects like marriage.”

Less Liberal

DiIulio agrees that the Democratic leadership has been much more socially liberal than the voters who support the party.

But DiIulio said the Democratic leadership’s willingness to allow candidates like Bob Casey to run on “faith-friendly” platforms in 2006 indicated a growing realization that the attitude gap is hurting the party.

The result is that Congressional Democrats have become collectively less socially liberal following the November elections, DiIulio said.

“I’ve been saying for years that the Democratic Party needs to be more responsive,” said DiIulio. “And I think this time they were more responsive.”

Pro-life Democrats like Kristen Day point to Nebraska’s Nelson as proof that the party has become more open to their viewpoints.

“Ben Nelson is staunchly pro-life,” his spokesman Jim Fagin told the Register. “He has said over and over again that Democrats have been unfairly portrayed as the party that wants to ban the Bible, burn the flag, take away guns, promote abortion, promote same-sex ‘marriage.’ And that’s just not true of the party in general.”

In the new Democrat-controlled Congress, Nelson anticipates coalitions will form across party lines to push “non-traditional Democratic agendas,” Fagin said.

Fagin pointed to the formation of the Senate’s “Gang of 14” — the seven Republicans and seven Democrats who joined forces in 2005 to break the impasse over President Bush’s pro-life judicial nominees — as a precedent for how such bipartisan coalitions might operate.

“It paved the way for confirmation of a number of controversial judges,” said Fagin. “The agreement also cleared the way for pro-life Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito and John Roberts.”

Fagin said that while Nelson is not Catholic himself, “you’re going to have Democrats like Ben Nelson protect values such as the Catholic Church promotes.”

Along with the Democratic Party’s more recent toleration of pro-life and pro-family initiatives, Fagin pointed to his party’s alignment with the U.S. bishops’ conference on backing an increase in the minimum wage and other anti-poverty initiatives.

“Democrats are the ones who want to increase the minimum wage,” Fagin said. “It’s been stopped by the other side.”

Rep. Jim Marshall, a Catholic who represents Georgia’s 2nd Congressional District, is another Democrat who had a solidly pro-life and pro-family voting record in the last Congress.

His spokesman, Doug Moore, said that although Marshall is well known as a socially conservative Democrat, he has experienced little conflict over his voting record with colleagues who disagree with him.

“That really hasn’t caused us any problems,” Moore said. “Jim is where he is, and I think people really have a lot of respect for his positions.”

Time Will Tell

DiIulio said it’s too early to tell whether the Democratic Party has commenced a lasting shift in terms of softening its support for legalized abortion and other key Democrat agendas.

“You have to realize this is a leadership that has been completely tone-deaf on this concern for much of the last 20 years,” he said. “I mean, they’re hearing, but I’m not sure the decibel level is quite as high as it should be.”

DiIulio suggested the Democrats might use their 2008 convention to signal they are really serious about moving to the center.

If Bob Casey Jr. is deliberately assigned a prominent slot to address the convention as an openly pro-life Democrat — 16 years after his father was snubbed by the party because of his pro-life beliefs — that would serve as a powerful symbol of a changed party attitude, DiIulio said.

Even if that happens, DiIulio said, it will probably take until after the 2010 elections before Americans can gauge if Democrats have made a permanent “purple” shift towards the political center on life and family issues.

Said DiIulio, “If the Democratic Party becomes marginally more sympathetic to candidates who depart from the party orthodoxy on such issues three elections in a row, then I think you’ve got something.”

Tom McFeely is based in

Victoria, British Columbia.