As political experts prognosticate about the coming 2006 off-year elections, one issue is missing from the political skyline.
Byron York observed recently in the New Republic, "These days GOP lawmakers are polling behind Democrats on issues like health care, education, and the deficit. National security is pretty much their only strength -- and now Bush has hurt them on that."
The Economist provides a similar analysis: "For the Democrats, this is a great opportunity. For years, they have enjoyed a consistent advantage over Republicans on the 'mommy' issues, such as education and health care. But Republicans have trounced them on 'daddy' issues, such as killing terrorists and defending the homeland."
Where have moral values vanished to? No one seems to talk about that dark horse issue that popped in the 2004 exit polls anymore. For Democrats, this is a godsend. For Republicans, it is the result of a fatally inept inventory of their electoral strengths and weaknesses.
The problem started shortly after the 2004 election, when some of America's sharpest and most respected opinion leaders set about systematically to debunk the surprising role moral values played in determining the outcome of that campaign.
David Brooks, writing in the New York Times, declared the moral values voter a "myth." Over at the Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer said moral values voters were a "myth." In his book God's Politics, liberal evangelical activist Jim Wallis called moral values voters, you guessed it, a "myth."
Okay, we get it. We're not supposed to believe in the moral values voter. But has anyone bothered to tell the nearly 30 million evangelical Christians and conservative Mass-attending Catholics who actually did cite "moral values" as their top political issue that they don't really exist? Something tells me they might have a different take on the matter than do Messrs. Brooks, Krauthammer, and Wallis.
And boy, could Republicans use those 30 million voters right about now. Republicans, however, appear to have breathed in too much of that "moral values myth" exhaust and have place conservative Christians on the "pay no mind" list.
The only people interested in building coalitions with conservative Christians these days are environmentalists. And the only politicians interested in speaking their language are traditional liberal Democrats, desperate to alter their irreligious public images.
Last month 86 evangelical Christian leaders embraced an initiative to fight "human induced climate change." The endorsement came after years of intense lobbying on the part of secular environmentalists. While this Evangelical Climate Initiative represents only a tiny minority of evangelicals, the conversion of some high-profile Christian leaders to a cause normally associated with liberal politics has provided inspiration to other liberal and secular organizations to try and build bridges with this vital segment of the body politic.
Elsewhere, Democrat politicians have amended their lexicon to include more of those putative moral values "code words." Just in time for Lent, a group of 55 Democrat Catholics in the House of Representatives released a Catholic "Statement of Principles," which in fact doesn't really state very many principles, but employs some very Catholic language.
These Catholic Democrats "embrace the vocation and mission of the laity." They "believe the government has moral purpose." They even quote Pope John Paul II. It certainly sounds like they get it now.
And where are the Republicans in all this? Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has promised conservative Christians the Senate will vote on the Federal Marriage Amendment in the early summer. This vote will come nineteen months after some 30 million Americans cited moral values as their issue of greatest concern in the last election and only five months prior to the next. Sen. Frist's motives may be honorable, but his timing might lead some to believe Senate Republicans are taking one more bucketful from the well of political pander.
Meanwhile, as Tony Carnes has observed in Christianity Today, evangelical Christians are about the only voter subgroup in America that still overwhelmingly favors President George W. Bush and his agenda.
But if Republicans take them for granted, or worse, if they have truly convinced themselves that their political base is a "myth," perhaps next year President Bush will have to exchange Biblical passages with Speaker Nancy Pelosi.