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Exiles on Main Street (continued)

FOR PROGRESSIVES, this growing Republican dominance is a frustrating state of affairs. In so many ways, the country is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, between blue states and red states, between hanging chad and contested recounts. And itís not as though the Democratic Party mainstream is all that progressive. (After all, thereís a reason why so many left-leaning voters supported Ralph Nader in 2000, misguided though their sentiments may have been.) Yet the Republicans not only control both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, they are likely to tighten that control this fall.

How can this be? How can a country split right down the middle have kept the Republicans in control of the House since 1995, and the Senate for a good chunk of the past quarter-century? How did the disputed presidential election of 2000 turn into likely victory for George W. Bush in 2004?

The problem is that though the country may be evenly divided, the Democrats live in the wrong places ó and long-term demographic trends favoring the Democrats have not yet kicked in. Ruy Teixeira and John Judis, in their book The Emerging Democratic Majority, argue that the shift to a knowledge-based economy, and the increasing importance of women and Latinos, will eventually consign the Republicans to long-term minority status. But not yet.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing analyses of the electorate was conducted recently by Robert David Sullivan, an associate editor at the Boston-based CommonWealth magazine and a former Boston Phoenix staff member. Sullivanís effort, "Beyond Red & Blue: The New Map of American Politics" (online at www.massinc.org), divides the country into 10 regions of equal population, defining those regions by voting patterns, racial and ethnic composition, income and education levels, and other demographic data.

Among other things, Sullivan has found that the rapidly growing region he calls "El Norte" ó heavily Latino counties in Southern Florida and from Southern Texas through Southern California ó are increasingly Democratic, yet distributed in such a way that it doesnít really help the party. California, he notes, is already something of a lock for the Democrats, so further El Norte growth there changes nothing.

In the South, states such as Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi are divided between the heavily African-American "Southern Lowlands" and mostly white "Appalachia." The result: the voting strength of black Democrats is not reflected in state-by-state results.

"I donít think that the Democrats are lost," says Sullivan. "I think that their strengths are a little more uncertain." If the Democrats continue to make gains among Latinos and in affluent suburbs, Sullivan says, then the Teixeira-Judis model could prove correct. "But," he adds, "that seems a little less certain than the Republicans doing better among the more religious, culturally conservative Southern states. Safer conventional wisdom is to say that the Republican gains are more solid."

If there has been a wild card in the 2004 campaign thus far, it has been use of the Internet. Howard Deanís ability to harness the Web as a fundraising and organizing tool has propelled him to the brink of the Democratic nomination. A grassroots Internet campaign virtually drafted Wesley Clark into the race.

Stirling Newberry, a long-time political activist currently writing for the Blogging of the President: 2004 Web site (www.bopnews.com), says that the Internet could very well affect House and Senate campaigns as well ó but warns that there is no particular reason the Web should favor Democrats over Republicans.

For instance, in South Dakota, Newberry says that Democratic congressional candidate Stephanie Herseth has made good use of the Internet in her quest to succeed Republican Bill Janklow, who resigned after being convicted of manslaughter in a fatal traffic accident.

Yet in Florida, Republican congresswoman Katherine Harris, who as secretary of state helped make Bush president three years ago, will likely pull in contributions from across the country if she chooses to run for the Senate seat being vacated by Bob Graham. If Harris gets by the White Houseís preferred candidate, Housing and Urban Development secretary Mel Martinez, then her Democratic opponent would probably be able to mount a successful Internet effort as well, given Harrisís notoriety in Democratic circles.

Newberry describes the Internet effect this way: "Itís going to have a huge effect on every congressional candidate who can nationalize his race."

WITH REPUBLICANS likely to dominate national politics for the next several years, progressives will be best served if they can find ways to work with both parties ó to find unlikely allies and to build coalitions across partisan lines.

Thatís certainly the tack emphasized by Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. Rose is unstinting in her criticism of the Bush administration, especially Attorney General John Ashcroft. Her bill of particulars includes the appointment of ideologically extreme judges; the repressive Patriot Act, which the White House may again try to expand in a second term; and Ashcroftís unprecedented policy of seeking the death penalty for federal crimes in states that donít have a capital-punishment law on the books. That, of course, would include Massachusetts, where confessed murderer Gary Sampson was sentenced to death in federal court on December 22.

Yet Roseís opposition to the Bush administrationís policies does not extend to the Republican Party itself. She notes that, in the past, some high-ranking Republican members of Congress, such as Dick Armey and Bob Barr, have been among the staunchest supporters of civil liberties. Indeed, the White House backed down from pushing the Patriot Act II last year in part because Representative Butch Otter, an Idaho Republican, was an outspoken opponent.

What particularly rankles Rose is the administrationís continued efforts to reduce the role of judges, whether by conducting warrantless searches in cases only peripherally linked to terrorism or by threatening to review the performance of judges who hand out sentences lighter than those specified in federal sentencing guidelines.

"Setting aside partisan politics, this particular administration has seen an unprecedented seizure of power by the executive branch," Rose says. "Itís less a partisan issue than a desire to see that the institution of checks and balances are in place."

Bipartisanship would appear to be a particularly unpromising strategy when it comes to another progressive issue: gay-and-lesbian rights. Yet Massachusetts state senator Cheryl Jacques, the incoming president and executive director of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), says her experience suggests that there are friends ó and enemies ó on both sides of the aisle. She notes, for example, that former Republican governor Bill Weld was a prominent supporter of gay rights, whereas Massachusetts House Speaker Tom Finneran, a Democrat, has been a consistent opponent.

"My concern is that we elect fair-minded leaders. This is a bipartisan organization, and I embrace that," Jacques says.

Indeed, the HRC ó the countryís largest organization working on gay-and-lesbian issues ó is so assiduously bipartisan that, in 1998, it endorsed New Yorkís incumbent Republican senator, Alfonse DíAmato, over his Democratic challenger, Chuck Schumer. (Schumer won.) DíAmato was a conservative, but he had a good voting record on gay rights. And though moderate Republicans ó and moderate Democrats ó have become increasingly rare as the parties grow more ideological, there remains a strong gay conservative presence in the form of the Log Cabin Republicans, currently led by former Massachusetts politico Patrick Guerriero.

Still, there are limits to the HRCís approach, and Jacques surely knows that as well as anyone. Now that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry, Republicans across the country are pushing for an amendment to the US Constitution that would restrict marriage to the union of one man and one woman. President Bush himself has said he might support such an effort. Meanwhile, all the leading Democratic presidential candidates support civil unions, which provide same-sex couples with many of the rights of marriage. And all oppose a constitutional amendment.

Jacquesís response is to focus on the issues and the candidates, not their party affiliation. "I believe the Human Rights Campaign will have a very strong litmus test," she says ó and she issues this warning to any candidate who comes out in favor of an anti-gay-marriage amendment: "They will not be our friend, they will be our enemy. And we will work tirelessly against them."

IN THE CURRENT environment, emphasizing issues over party affiliation may be the best strategy. Even Southern fundamentalists have gay family members. Even Western libertarians donít want to live next to toxic-waste pits. The daughters of Republican burghers are just as likely to need access to safe, legal abortions as the daughters of Democratic union members. And neither party gave John Ashcroft permission to trample on the Bill of Rights.

This isnít meant to sound Pollyannaish. Letís face it: a second Bush term, combined with continued Republican control of Congress, will mark a long, dark winter for progressive causes. No doubt we can look forward to more tax cuts for the rich, bigger deficits, budget cuts for social programs, and continued assaults on the environment, civil liberties, lesbians and gay men, and abortion rights.

By shining a light into these corners of darkness, progressives can at least help usher in a better day.

But whenever that day might come, itís not likely to be Tuesday, November 2, 2004.

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]phx.com. Read his daily Media Log at BostonPhoenix.com.

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Issue Date: January 2 - 8, 2004
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