DATE August 25, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Dan Gilgoff of beliefnet.com discusses the role of
religion in the Obama, McCain campaigns
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest Dan Gilgoff has been reporting on how religion is coming into play in
the presidential campaign. He's the political editor for the Web site
Beliefnet and writes a blog called God-o-Meter, sponsored by Beliefnet in
partnership with Time magazine. In Gilgoff's 2007 book, "The Jesus Machine,"
he investigated how evangelical leader James Dobson built his organizational
empire. And when Gilgoff was a senior editor with U.S. News & World Report,
he covered how the Christian right was influencing politics.
On Gilgoff's God-o-Meter blog, he reports that a senior source at the
Democratic National Convention says that this week's Democratic convention
will be more faith friendly than those that have come before. The source
said, quote, "The speeches will be more values laden with a lot of talk about
what we believe in and what motivates us," unquote. The convention week
started yesterday with an interfaith gathering.
Dan Gilgoff, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Now, it looked for a while like
religion wasn't going to play a big part in the campaigns. In fact, I thought
it looked for a while like religion was backfiring for both of the candidates.
Obama had to leave his pastor and his church; McCain had to cut ties with
Pastor John Hagee. But it looks like religion's playing a bigger role now.
What do you think?
Mr. DAN GILGOFF: I think that's true, and I think that it was hard to
imagine, after 2004, particularly with George W. Bush, the role that religion
and religious voters played in his reelection, particularly evangelicals,
getting nearly 80 percent of the evangelical vote, a quarter of the electorate
in 2004 I think was seen by a lot of journalists and religion experts as kind
of a high watermark for religion in American politics, certainly in the
presidential contest. And I think what's surprising is that that turns out
not to be the case, that religion is just as important going into the 2008
election. And also what we couldn't have anticipated even a few years ago was
that the story line has drifted--I don't want to say entirely, but so largely
over to the Democratic side, that that's where so much of the action is,
that's where so much of my reporting is these days, and that was unimaginable
GROSS: What do you mean by that?
Mr. GILGOFF: I mean that Barack Obama has been someone, in terms of his
religious outreach, who has been so sophisticated, probably approaching what
George W. Bush did in 2004, and so dogged in his efforts to reach religious
voters. And John McCain, by contrast, has been so clumsy and largely mum in
talking either about values issues that are important to the Christian right,
really the base of his own party, and certainly speaking about his own
GROSS: Yet it seemed at the Saddleback civil forum that Rick Warren moderated
that it was McCain who got the bump and that Obama was perceived by a lot of
people in the press and a lot of evangelicals as not having done very well.
Mr. GILGOFF: Another big surprise. I talked to the Obama folks going into
the event on Saturday night, and their sense of confidence in his ability to
soar in that kind of religious context for a Democrat was really palpable.
And I think that they were relishing this opportunity to have this Democrat,
seasoned about talking about faith, to sit down and for the first time with a
Republican, John McCain, to be the one who would be seeming like a fish out of
water in discussing his faith.
And I think the fact that McCain's answers went over so well, he was so
succinct, he was revealing for the first time he said that his greatest moral
failing was his first marriage, really surprised the Obama campaign, for sure,
and I think surprised and reassured a lot of conservative evangelicals as
well. It's coming very late in the day for John McCain, I mean, for his
religious outreach really to just be up and running now in recent weeks in
serious fashion for a Republican candidate in this day and age is sort of
breathtaking. But he did exceed expectations, I think pretty massively with
his appearance at Saddleback.
GROSS: Rick Warren is one of the new, younger evangelical leaders whose
agendas have widened from just gay marriage and abortion to include global
HIV, global warming, poverty, and yet do you feel like you're hearing a lot
about the so-called new agenda of the new generation of evangelical leaders?
Do you feel like you're hearing that coming from the Christian right?
Mr. GILGOFF: To some extent it is, and it is unmistakable and historic that
the agenda is widening to include these issues that are not only a departure
from the traditional hot button agenda of the Christian right, but also for
the first time give it real common cause with the Democratic Party on some
major issues, like HIV/AIDS, certainly climate change and poverty.
On the other hand, I think the Saddleback forum was a real reminder of, you
know, despite all of this attention that the news media has lavished on the
emerging evangelical middle and figures like Richard Cizik from the National
Association of Evangelicals, when you look at the questions that Rick Warren
asked, they weren't about HIV/AIDS, an issue that he is leading on, they
weren't really about climate change. I don't think there was a single
question asked about that. They were really about traditional, cultural,
divisive issues. So gay marriage came up, judges came up, the ability of
religious institutions to discriminate with federal funds came up--and in my
mind, that's something of a pet issue for the Christian right, certainly for
faith-based organizations. So it's hard to see how that issue would deserve
airtime and a question about international poverty wouldn't.
And I think the fact that a moderate evangelical like Rick Warren really stuck
so closely to the hot button agenda is a helpful wake-up call for us in the
media who are really, you know, enamored of this story of the evangelical
movement changing so dramatically. On one hand, it certainly is. On the
other hand, issues like abortion and gay marriage, I think, still take
precedent. And that, I think, has been lost in some of the coverage of the
emerging evangelical middle.
GROSS: What do you think are a couple of the best examples of how the
religious right has used its power so far to influence candidates in the
Mr. GILGOFF: Well, I think that in a way it's gone beyond the Republican
candidate. I think that the very fact that the Saddleback forum happened and
that a Democrat showed up is actually evidence that the evangelical influence
on politics is expanding, even, you know, after, you know, Bush seemed to be
the most openly evangelical president in decades, because now it is
influencing both sides of the ticket. And so I think that the major influence
of the Christian right today is not so much necessarily on the direction of
the Republican Party or the Republican Party becoming even more pro-life, say,
than they were four years ago, it's more that the Democrats are now vying for
the votes of cultural conservatives, of evangelical conservatives in a really
serious way that wasn't true four years ago. I mean, the CEO of the
Democratic National Convention this year is an ordained Pentecostal minister.
And I think one of the reasons why the DNC chairman, Howard Dean, elevated her
to that position is because one of his top priorities has been getting
evangelical voters, values voters, since 2004. And so I think that kind of
counterintuitively the Christian right has injected religion into public life
to the degree that it's really the Democrats now vying for those votes that
really is a testament to the influence of the Christian right.
GROSS: Well, I'm wondering if you think that the Democrats are trying to eat
into that evangelical vote that Bush got, or are they just trying to create a
base that's the equivalent but is more liberal?
Mr. GILGOFF: I think it's both, but I think that you have to look at, you
know, the voting patterns of church-going Americans, and they are so lopsided
toward the Republicans that you can't build your religious base without really
trying to eat into the opponent's base. You know, a good example of this is
just look at the state of Ohio. Ohio is the state where President Bush won
the White House in 2004, came down to those electoral votes. And a couple of
years later in 2006, you had Democratic candidates winning Ohio by getting
about 10 percent more of church-going voters than John Kerry had. And had
John Kerry in 2004, say, gotten the same number, or the same proportion of
church-goers as someone like Ted Strickland, who's the current governor of
Ohio, elected in 2006, then John Kerry would be in the White House right now.
And so I think that the Democrats see these opportunities to move the map ever
so slightly among evangelicals, Catholics, church-going voters generally, that
will change the outcome, or that at least can change the outcome of elections.
And so I think in a very real way, they are really trying to eat into their
GROSS: My guest is Dan Gilgoff, political editor of beliefnet.com. He writes
the blog God-o-Meter. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Dan Gilgoff, and he writes the God-o-Meter blog on the
Beliefnet Web site. And he is the political editor of Beliefnet and a former
political writer for U.S. News & World Report. And we're talking about how
religion is coming into play in the presidential campaign.
Now, you say that the religious left is growing up faster than the religious
right did. Give us some examples of what's being done now on the religious
left in the attempt to create a network that is parallel to the network on the
Mr. GILGOFF: Sure. Well, you think about, you know, Christian radio and how
long it's been around in conservative circles. I mean, it really goes back
to, you know, the early 20th century with the Scopes monkey trial and the
embarrassment that that was for Christian fundamentalists in this country and
them retreating from public life, from politics and forming their own
subculture, starting their own radio stations and really establishing this
vast media empire, which even today folks like Pat Robertson with Christian
Broadcasting Network, or James Dobson of Focus on the Family, these huge media
empires, still preside over. And this was a media empire that was literally
100 years or so in the making.
Now, you look at the way Democrats, who for decades weren't playing in that
medium and how quickly they've gotten up to speed on Christian radio, which is
really the major gateway, mediawise, to the evangelical subculture, so that,
you know, in 2005, one year after John Kerry had lost his run for the White
House, Tim Kaine in Virginia running for governor did something kind of
revolutionary for a Democrat, he bought ads, his first ads, in fact, of the
campaign, on Christian radio. And now just a few years later, that's become
par for the course for a Democratic campaign, so that Barack Obama was on
Christian radio before John McCain was. And I think that the way the
sophistication that Democrats are getting in reaching out to religious
voters--and that's one quick example--is just so, you know, so fast compared
to what took the Republicans and the Christian right decades to accomplish.
GROSS: I think an example of what you're talking about, about the Democrats
trying to get more of a religious vote, is Leah Daughtry. She's the CEO of
the Democratic National Convention this year. She's the number two person in
the Democratic National Committee, and she's also a Pentecostal pastor. What
kind of efforts has she initiated within the party?
Mr. GILGOFF: Well, I think that the very fact that she's at the lofty perch
that she does inhabit is a testament to kind of the irony of Howard Dean being
the one who engineered, or at least was supportive of these stepped-up efforts
for the Democratic Party to reach religious voters. I mean, Howard Dean was
so roundly criticized when he was campaigning for president in 2004 when he
cited the Book of Job as his favorite New Testament book. And I think that he
became sort of the image of the secular Democratic Party.
And Leah Daughtry was at the Democratic National Committee prior to 2004,
prior to Howard Dean's election as the party chairman, and after 2004 Leah
Daughtry had commissioned this poll, the first ever Democratic poll on
values-first voters, voters that consider their religion as important to their
voting decision as any other factor. And she was so taken by the degree to
which Democrats had lost that constituency that she said to Governor Dean that
she was leaving and was going to basically start her own consulting shop so
that Democrats could connect to religious voters. And Dean said, `Why don't
you stick around here and you could do that work from within the party?' A few
years later, Dean elevated her to be the CEO of the convention. And so, you
know, her story's just a testament to how serious Democrats are taking this
For the convention itself, the Democrats made the kickoff event this
interfaith service. There is going to be a speaking slot for Senator Bob
Casey Jr. from Pennsylvania. His dad was famously denied a spot at the 1992
convention--this was then Pennsylvania Governor Bob Casey--because his
pro-life views were at odds with the party platform. Even little things at
the convention. When delegates arrive, in their gift bags will be directories
of churches, mosques and synagogues and listings of halal restaurants and
kosher restaurants, which seems small, but you're dealing with a party that
has this reputation of somehow being uncaring or even hostile to people of
faith. So they think those small gestures will go a long way.
There'll be a chapel inside the convention hall for the first time. There'll
be a caucus for faith voters, just like there have been for a long time for
African-American voters, labor voters or gay and lesbians. And so, in a lot
of ways, I think the Democratic convention is going to be the showcase for a
lot of these efforts post-2004 for the Democrats to re-connect with religious
GROSS: You say even the abortion plank within the Democratic platform was
written to appeal to both pro-choice and pro-life people within the party.
Mr. GILGOFF: That's right. For the first time, the Democratic platform has
language that it says is aimed at reducing the demand for abortion. And so,
you know, this is an attempt by the Democrats to welcome pro-life people into
the party. I talked to Rick Warren about that plank after the Saddleback
forum, and he was quite dubious. And I think there's a big question that
November and the exit polls will give us some answer to, is how much of these
attempts by the Democrats to welcome pro-life voters and delegates into the
party, to reach out to religious voters will be, you know, greeted with
enthusiasm by religious voters or, in talking to Rick Warren, who greeted that
development with real skepticism. He was asking why are the Democrats doing
this now with this new, supposedly pro-life platform. He questioned the
timing of it. He questioned whether it really would have any practical
implications for legislation. And so I think he represents this question of,
will pro-life voters be won over by Democrats? Or will they view this all
with a great degree of skepticism?
GROSS: Well, the platform still supports a woman's right to choose to have an
abortion, so why would somebody who's strongly anti-abortion think that
there's an improvement? Like, what's supposed to be the improvement within
the platform in terms of, you know, a pro-life perspective?
Mr. GILGOFF: When I talked to John Kerry after 2004, after he lost the
election, one of his biggest regrets was that he didn't recognize a moral
dimension to the entire abortion decision. And he said that it wasn't
necessarily about Democrats needing to moderate their support for abortion
rights, it was about connecting to religious people, pro-life people, by
recognizing a moral decision involved in abortion. And I think that that wish
is encapsulated in the new Democratic language. I don't know if it will have
any, you know, practical effect. It certainly doesn't in terms of voicing any
new support for abortion restrictions. But the very fact that it mentions
reducing demand for abortion implies a morality bid. That is a worthy goal
that was absent previously from the Democratic Party platform. I don't know
if that will be lost on voters or not, but I think that's certainly the
GROSS: You know, at the same time that Barack Obama is, you know, presenting
himself as a man of faith and doing it more overtly and maybe more comfortably
than previous Democratic candidates have, the religious right is attacking him
on certain religious issues. Give us an example of what you think the most
prominent example is.
Mr. GILGOFF: Well, it's probably an act that exists both at the state level
in a handful of states and the federal level, was passed a few years ago
called the Infant Born Alive Protection Act, and it was an act that Barack
Obama opposed when he was a state legislator in Illinois. It basically
afforded legal protections to babies that were born and survived abortion
attempts. And there's some argument whether this was entirely symbolic, this
legislation, whether this, you know, this ever actually happens in hospitals,
where fetuses survive abortion attempts and are born. But the Christian right
has picked up on this because they are nervous about Barack Obama, someone who
speaks so openly about his faith and is so openly courting religious voters.
I think the Christian right is really nervous that he might break through and
connect. And so it's using his opposition to this act in particular. You
know, Barack Obama said he opposed it because it was a threat to Roe v. Wade.
The Christian right says, `Well, if that's a threat to Roe v. Wave, then
anything is, any attempted curb on abortion is a potential attack on Roe v.
Wade.' And so I think they're using this as exhibit A in trying to say, `He's
not really the religious person that he claims to be.'
GROSS: And do you think that their attack is working?
Mr. GILGOFF: It could very well be. I think that we won't know until
November. But it is striking that, given all of the seriousness which with
Barack Obama has treated religious outreach, there's been an handful of polls
that show that John McCain is doing just as well as Republicans always have
among evangelicals, that he's doing really well among Catholics, who are the
quintessential swing voters. And so we haven't seen a lot of evidence yet
that, for all of Barack Obama's efforts at religious outreach and all of
McCain's stumbles in that department--and there have been some mighty
ones--that it's making any difference with how religious people are perceiving
GROSS: Dan Gilgoff will be back in the second half of the show. He writes
the blog God-o-Meter and is the political editor for beliefnet.com. I'm Terry
Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Dan Gilgoff, who's been
covering religion and the presidential campaign on his blog God-o-Meter. It's
sponsored by the Web site beliefnet.com in conjunction with Time magazine.
Gilgoff is also the political editor for Beliefnet. He's a former senior
editor of U.S. News & World Report. His book "The God Machine" investigated
how evangelical leader James Dobson created his organizational empire.
Religion is such a sensitive issue, I think both sides are trying to figure
out how to make their case to people of faith and how to undermine the other
side's positions on faith. I want to ask you about a negative ad that is
running on the McCain campaign Web site about Obama. And it's an ad that
makes it seem like Obama has a real messiah complex. And, of course, it plays
overtly--or covertly--on the fact that he is a man of faith. So let's listen
to the ad, and then we'll talk about it.
(Soundbite of campaign ad)
Unidentified Man #1: It shall be known that in 2008 the world will be
blessed. They will call him "the one."
Senator BARACK OBAMA: A nation healed, a world repaired. We are the ones
we've been waiting for.
Man #1: And he has anointed himself ready to carry the burden of "the one."
To quote Barack, "I have become a symbol of America returning to our best
traditions." He can do no wrong.
Unidentified Woman: Do you have any doubts?
Unidentified Man #2: Never.
Man #1: Can you see the light?
Sen. OBAMA: A light will shine down from somewhere. It will alight upon
you. You will experience an epiphany. And you will say to yourself, `I have
to vote for Barack.'
Man #1: And the world shall receive his blessings.
Sen. OBAMA: This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to swell,
and our planet began to heal.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. CHARLTON HESTON: (As Moses) Behold his mighty hand!
(Soundbite of crowd cheering)
Man #1: Barack Obama may be the one, but is he ready to lead?
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: I should say when you hear that voice saying `Behold his mighty hand,'
that's a clip from Charlton Heston in "The Ten Commandments" parting the Red
So what impact has this ad had, Dan Gilgoff?
Mr. GILGOFF: Well, it stirred up quite a controversy. There's been a whole
coterie of religious operatives that have emerged in the Democratic side that
didn't really exist a few years ago. And this group has alleged in the weeks
since this ad came out that the ad really subtly suggests that Barack Obama is
indeed the Antichrist and lifts imagery and language and narratives out of the
"Left Behind" series of apocalyptic novels co-authored by Jerry Jenkins that
is, you know, so popular it has sold in the tens of millions among
evangelicals. And for all of John McCain's seeming clumsiness in reaching out
to religious voters, that this ad reveals a great sophistication in kind of
covertly targeting evangelicals and playing on their fears of an Antichrist,
and framing Barack Obama as such.
GROSS: What is being said in almost coded ways about the Antichrist that
people who haven't read the "Left Behind" series wouldn't pick up on?
Mr. GILGOFF: Some of the imagery of the play in the ad of the clouds and the
staircase there, the fact that the ad shows Barack Obama on the international
stage and there's a great, kind of international conspiracy in the "Left
Behind" novels. The kind of central premise of the ad itself is that Barack
Obama is claiming--he had a messiah complex and is claiming to be the messiah.
And in the novels, that is the kind of guise in which the Antichrist appears.
So it's the very person that's claiming to be the messiah that is indeed the
Antichrist. And the Democrats have released, you know, entire memos that
detail kind of point by point how this ad really cribs the "Left Behind"
series and evangelical views of the Antichrist in subtle ways. The McCain
campaign has denied that that's the case.
GROSS: You point out on your God-o-Meter blog that Karl Rove, who was, you
know, the architect of the Bush campaign and certainly helped get out the
evangelical vote, he's now, you know, a pundit on Fox News, but one of his
proteges is one of the key people in the McCain campaign. He doesn't seem,
you say, to be emphasizing the evangelical vote this year. Why do you think
Mr. GILGOFF: Because I think that the John McCain campaign perceives a very
different path to the White House than the campaign of George W. Bush in
2004. You know, after 2000, Karl Rove said publicly that there were four
million white evangelicals who stayed home on election day in 2000, and that
he was going to do everything in his power to get them out on 2004. Now I
think that the McCain campaign sees that their path to the White House lies in
getting the votes of swing voters, of undecided voters, of independents.
And so I think that on one level John McCain's really shown a real failure to
connect with religious voters and the Christian right base of his party. On
another level I think there's been a conscience decision to de-emphasize faith
and values in an attempt to win middle-of-the-road voters, which he thinks is
really necessary to gain the White House. So, for instance, the key note
speaker of the Republican convention is Rudy Giuliani, someone who is pro-gay
rights and pro-abortion rights. And the Christian right finds that absolutely
appalling, but that's the way that John McCain thinks that, you know, he could
win the White House, by going for those independent voters. And that's really
different that the route that George W. Bush took to the White House in '04.
GROSS: We've been talking largely about the evangelical vote, but I wonder if
you see both candidates as trying to reach Jewish voters, particularly in
Florida, which is a swing state?
Mr. GILGOFF: Yeah, I really think they are. And I think that the Jewish
vote in Florida--but in other states, too, that are swing states like
Pennsylvania--is tiny, but in a close election could be decisive. And so I
think that the John McCain campaign has really tried to take advantage of some
of the wariness in the Jewish community toward Barack Obama because of his
willingness to negotiate with Iran, because of his past stated support for the
Palestinians, and also because there's this rumor out there spread via e-mail
that Barack Obama is a Muslim. And I think there's some wariness over him due
to that, too. And so, you know, you hear John McCain going so far as to be
considering Joe Lieberman for his vice presidential running mate. And polls
show that John McCain is doing a lot better among Jewish voters than has
traditionally been the case for a Republican.
GROSS: John McCain had been kind of reluctant in the past to discuss his
faith, and he had alienated a lot of people in the religious right by calling
certain leaders of the religious right "agents of intolerance." In the civil
forum that was moderated recently by Rick Warren, he talked about what he
described as, you know, a very moving moment when he was a prisoner of war in
Vietnam and one of his prison guards drew a cross in the dirt, and there they
were, a prisoner and his guard suddenly standing together as two Christians.
That story has been called into question by some people who say a story like
that appears in one of Solzhenitsyn's books, and apparently it's appeared in
some other places as well, in some sermons. What do you know about this?
You've been following this story.
Mr. GILGOFF: It's a story that McCain has told for a long time now of his
imprisonment. And the controversy is partly spurred by the fact that the
"cross in the dirt" element of the story only begins to appear after John
McCain's 2000 run for the White House. He had told it for really decades
before then, and that detail about a prison guard scratching a cross in the
dirt was absent from those versions until relatively recently. So it's cast
some doubt, or at least raised some questions, on the integrity of the story.
And now it's been seen to have echoed some of the language, as you said, in a
I think, you know, this is one of the stories that John McCain has really told
time and again in this election cycle as a way to open up about his personal
faith. It's really, I think, pretty actually interesting to juxtapose it with
what Barack Obama is doing, because Barack Obama is talking about his living
relationship with Jesus Christ. John McCain is talking about really the role
that faith plays in his life only insomuch as it entered into his life as a
prisoner of war, you know, 30-plus years ago. And so one of the difficulties
of either party or candidates engaging on religion is that if it's phony,
people pick up on it. And if it's really shown to be untrue--and it's yet to
be seen, you know, if this story even falls into that category--but if it
does, it's a huge turnoff to voters, trying to come across as genuine on
religious matters when one is really not.
And so I think it's one of the reasons why the Democrats, for instance, have
really emphasized only highlighting those voices within the party that are
genuinely religious, because there's such a fear of coming off as being
disingenuous. And we'll see whether John McCain, indeed, has fallen into that
trap or not. We'll see what happens with this story.
GROSS: What are you going to be watching for in the convention in terms of
religion? Are there certain things that you're looking or listening for in
Mr. GILGOFF: For the Democrats, I think it's going to be subtle. When I
talked to Democratic operatives and those with some degree of influence in
actually shaping the speeches of the speakers during the Democratic
convention, what's really interesting is that there's an emphasis on shifting
from the usual speaking strategy of Democrats kind of talking about their
accomplishments or their policy goals, and a emphasis on talking about values
and why they believe what they believe, what's driving them. And I think as
you watch the speakers at the Democratic convention this week, you should
watch out for that. There's going to be more of an emphasis on revealing
their character. And although they might not talk in openly religious terms,
I think that they see that as values-laden language that was really missing in
the speeches of recent conventions.
GROSS: And for the Republican convention?
Mr. GILGOFF: For the Republican convention, you might look at the absence of
social conservatives, evangelical leaders who get speaking slots. And I think
that a lot of those slots are going to be afforded to moderates in the party
who don't go over particularly well with religious right figures and with
evangelical voters. And I think this is another indication that John McCain
wants independence and is a lot less concerned about social conservatives.
GROSS: You think he's concerned about the religious right staying home on
Mr. GILGOFF: There's a question of whether he should be, you know, concerned
about that. And I think that's a realistic threat. I think that the real
organizing engine of the Republican Party is the evangelical base. I mean,
these are the people that pick up the phone, that knock on doors to really
promote candidates. And I think that unless they're activated then a lot more
evangelicals will stay home than in the past. And I haven't seen signs that
the McCain campaign is worried about that threat. I think that they figure
that evangelical support for Republican candidates has always been quite high,
and that they can't afford to alienate moderate voters by being seen to be
reaching out really strongly to that base of the party.
GROSS: Dan Gilgoff, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. GILGOFF: Terry, thanks so much for having me. I really enjoyed it.
GROSS: Dan Gilgoff writes the blog God-o-Meter and is the political editor
The Democrats are holding their convention in Colorado, a Western state they
hope to win.
Coming up, we talk with Ran Lizza of The New Yorker about the Democrat's
Western strategy. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Ryan Lizza talks about the strategy among the
Democratic Party officials to make inroads in the West rather
than the South
TERRY GROSS, host:
The Democratic convention is being held in Denver for a good reason. The
Democrats hope to win the state of Colorado, even though George W. Bush won
the state twice. In the new edition of The New Yorker, my guest Ryan Lizza
writes about the Democrats' Western strategy and why the Democrats think they
stand a better chance of winning red states in the West than the South. He
points out that, since 2002, Democrats have replaced Republican governors in
Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona. Lizza
previously joined us to discuss his New Yorker article about Obama's early
political career in Chicago. Lizza is in Denver now covering the convention.
Ryan Lizza, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Now, Colorado has a Democratic
governor, Bill Ritter, who'll speak Thursday at the convention. And you say
that he may be in the vanguard of what the national Democratic Party is
becoming, both in its demographics and its policies. What are some of the
parts of his strategy that Democrats consider to be possibly applicable to the
Mr. RYAN LIZZA: You know, one of the reasons he may be in a vanguard is
because of where he is. Look, the Southwest, the Intermountain West is where
a lot of the future growth of America is. There's a Brookings report that
called it the "new American heartland." These states are booming out here,
areas around Phoenix, Las Vegas and Denver. And he sort of picked the lock of
the Colorado electorate and figured out how to win, and not just win but win
it by a huge margin out here. He won by 17 points. And the basic way he did
it was he looked at the electorate and saw that the two big groups of
opportunity for him were what he called government pragmatists and moral
pragmatists. You know, the big piece of the electorate that is growing the
fastest in Colorado are independents, people who don't declare allegiance to
And he won among these two groups, one, by stressing a basic pragmatism about
how to govern; and two--and this can't be ignored and this sort of complicates
the equation out here--he's pro-life. And he cut into a group of voters who
care about religious issues, although they don't care about them so much that
they wouldn't consider voting for a Democratic candidate. And out here it's
about 15 percent of the electorate. And as a pro-life person he carved into
that group. That's not the only way to win out here, so it's not to say that
just because he was pro-life was the only way he won. But the electorate is
complicated enough and growing fast enough that the Democrats can sort of put
together interesting coalitions they couldn't put together in the South.
GROSS: When Howard Dean announced that the convention would be in Denver, he
referred to a memo that was written by Gary Hart, the former Colorado senator,
and the memo was called "Manifesto: Democrats in the West." What was the Gary
Hart manifesto about the West?
Mr. LIZZA: He had basically three big points. One was that the Democrats
had to think about private property rights in a slightly new way. He
recommended that Democrats pick up on the strain of libertarianism that is
still very strong in the West. And one of the intriguing recommendations was
that he believed that Democrats should come out and condemn the Kelo decision.
That was a Supreme Court decision that allowed the government to seize private
property in the name of economic development, and very unpopular with
libertarians, naturally. And he thought the Democratic Party, if they wanted
to succeed in the West, should come out against that.
His other recommendations were to be a little bit smarter about talking about
resource development and conservation. You know, resource issues are hugely
important to the West, especially as the population grows. And he had a lot
of recommendations about Democrats not defining themselves too far on the left
when it comes to environmentalism, but being sort of ruthlessly pragmatic when
issues of conservation and development come up.
And then the final recommendation--and this is different that Ritter's
strategy--is he recommended that, unlike the South, we had talked about these
values issues, and Democrats are so obsessed these days with values and
appearing religious, he recommended instead they talk about principles, the
argument being that values has a religious connotation, whereas principles
have a secular connotation. And instead of talking about religious values,
you know, talking about things like honor and integrity and courage and
accountability. Those were the sort of three core recommendations.
GROSS: You know, in talking about the Western strategy for the Democratic
Party you have to acknowledge that the West has some pretty major demographic
differences from the rest of the country. What are some of those demographic
differences that come into play on the political scene?
Mr. LIZZA: Well, there are a few things. One, the moral issues play a
little bit differently out here. Unlike the South, evangelical Christianity
does not dominate. So voters that care about some of those issues that
they're not as high a priority as in other parts of the country. Number two,
the racial dynamics in the Western states are totally different than on the
East and the South, and for one very obvious reason, there's no history of
slavery in these states. And the recent history is not as fraught and there's
not as much racial tension, black/white racial tension as you find in some
Eastern and Southern states. And the other racial factor is the growing
Hispanic population out here, which is becoming increasingly Democratic after
a slight flirtation with Bush in 2000 and 2004.
Then the final thing is--one of the intriguing part of it, the party structure
out here is the parties are newer and there's not as much attachment to either
party. So if you're going to sort of look to a state to re-invent your party
and to sort of experiment with what your party is going to be, doing it in the
West is a lot easier than doing it in the East because these parties are
younger, there's not as much political patronage, and there's not as much
interest group control over the parties. So these Western parties are a
little bit easier to use as laboratories.
GROSS: So if the Democratic Party took this kind of Western strategy, how
would the party look different?
Mr. LIZZA: Well, I think that's the interesting question here, because if
the Democrats--and it appears that this is the direction they're going--if
they really do become a Western party and oriented toward the West, that will
fundamentally, over time, change the party. And it arguably will become more
attuned to the interests of Hispanics rather than African-Americans because
that's a key swing group out here. It will arguably be more attuned to the
sort of upper-income Democratic-leaning independents who are exploding in the
suburbs rather than the sort of working-class lunch bucket Democrats that
dominate in the Rust Belt states and on the East Coast, because the economy
out here...(unintelligible)...the sort of vanguard of a post-industrial
economy rather than the old economy. And it will become, perhaps, a little
less oriented towards labor because the labor movement is not as strong out
GROSS: So what does the choice of Joe Biden as Obama's vice presidential
running mate say to you about the Western strategy and the demographics of the
Midwest and the East vs. the West?
Mr. LIZZA: Well, I mean, one of the interesting demographic puzzles that
Obama has to figure out in this campaign is, he's looking at two swing state
areas, the Midwest and Intermountain West. And the demographics in those two
places and the voters he needs to win over in those two places are very, very
different. I mean, the way Gary Hart put it in an interview was, as a
Democrat, when you go to the Midwest and these Rust Belt states, you know,
you're trying to win over the old economy voters, you're trying to win over
voters who have had the worst luck in the sort of wrenching changes that the
American economy is going through. When you get to states like Colorado and
New Mexico and Nevada, these are states that are benefiting from the new
economy, that Joe Biden fits the profile a little bit more of the lunch bucket
Democrat. I mean, he comes from Scranton, Pennsylvania, working-class family.
And I think one of the hopes of the Obama campaign is that he'll appeal to
some of these working-class whites that Obama has had trouble with.
But overall I really think that the Biden choice was more about his experience
in foreign policy credentials and filling that gap for Obama than any specific
demographic that he might help Obama with. He's the chairman of the Foreign
Relations Committee. Obama basically picked the guy most associated with
foreign policy expertise in the Democratic Party.
GROSS: My guest is Ryan Lizza. His article about the Democrats' Western
strategy is in the new edition of The New Yorker. More after a break. This
is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Ryan Lizza. He's a Washington correspondent for The New
Yorker. His article about the Democrats' Western strategy is in the new
edition of the magazine.
What are some of the things you're going to be listening for at the Democratic
Mr. LIZZA: You know, the story in Denver early on this week continues to be
the split between Hillary and Obama. And just to tie this all together, to go
back to these sort of two different demographic coalitions, if you think about
the primaries, Obama was the guy who rallied--to simplify greatly--the new
economy voters. Hillary was the person who rallied the old economy voters.
The voters who have had the least success with the changes in the economy
tended to vote for her; the voters who were succeeding in the new economy
tended to vote for Obama. And it was, you know, the voters who needed more
from government tended to vote for Hillary Clinton. There was a divide based
on education level and income level, and the voters who were higher income,
higher education level, tended to vote for Obama, and voters with lower income
and less education tended to vote for Hillary. And that's a classic divide in
the Democratic Party. Sometimes Democrats try to just call it the wine track
and the beer track. And Obama was the candidate of the wine track, Hillary
was the candidate of the beer track.
Now, this divide goes back, you know, years and years. Gary Hart, in an
interview, told me, you know, that was the same divide that he had in 1984
against Fritz Mondale, Mondale being the old economy guy, Hart being the new
economy guy. Now, the difference this time around was, one, there are more of
those new economy voters now, but also Obama had huge support from the
African-American community. In fact, that was one of the major changes that
made him able to put together a winning coalition.
GROSS: Any final thoughts at the start of the Democratic convention?
Mr. LIZZA: Well, one of the stories that I can't get out of my head, and
that I'll be thinking about Thursday when I watch Obama is how far this guy
has come in such a short period of time. And I know everyone knows that
generally, but just think about this. We all remember Obama in 2004 at the
Democratic convention with the famous speech that sort of launched his
presidential campaign in a way. Well, just four years before that in 2000, he
was also at a Democratic convention. 2000 was sort of the low point of
Obama's political career, if not his life. He'd just come off a losing
congressional race where he was crushed by Bobby Rush. And he was in debt.
His relationship with his wife wasn't going all that well because she never
wanted him to run for that congressional seat in the first place. And he was
thinking about leaving politics altogether. A friend of his encouraged him to
take a shot and go out to Los Angeles to the Democratic convention and maybe
do a little bit of networking.
Well, Obama, who didn't have a whole lot of money found a cheap flight on
Southwest, the low budget airline, he got out there, turned out he couldn't
get any credentials to get into the Democratic convention in 2000. And then
he went to rent a car and his credit card was declined. And as he said in the
past, one time he's told the story, he said sarcastically, you know, `It
wasn't really a high point of my life.' So if you just think about the guy who
couldn't get into the convention and couldn't even rent a car is now, eight
years later, the Democratic nominee for president.
GROSS: Ryan Lizza, thanks so much for talking with us.
Mr. LIZZA: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Ryan Lizza spoke to us from Denver. His article about the Democrats'
Western strategy is in the new edition of The New Yorker.
You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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