REP. Vic Fazio of California, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, has concluded that Democrats up for election and reelection in November cannot run on President Clinton's record and be successful. So, as a professional political strategist, he has, as they say in the business, ``gone negative.''
What's alarming is not that he is engaging in negative campaigning, but who he is directing it at - not politicians, but people of faith. Mr. Fazio leveled a measured attack on the role of people of faith in the Republican Party, stating, ``Republicans accept the religious right and their tactics at their own peril, for these activists are demanding their rightful seat at the table, and that is what the American people fear the most.'' Fazio further states that, ``Obviously, I certainly believe that Christians can participate in politics, they can do so across the spectrum, but I don't think that taking over the political party of Lincoln is necessarily good for the country.''
Politics is a rough game and those who enter the arena as candidates have to be prepared to have their thoughts and actions scrutinized and criticized, sometimes in hurtful and unfair ways. It comes with the territory. Now chairman Fazio wants to apply those same ``no holds barred'' rules to attacks on voters themselves. In this he goes too far.
Fazio's attack harkens back to the worst of the 1950s' Joe McCarthy, Roy Cohn, and John Birch Society tactics of whipping up support by appealing to prejudice. Remember when John Kennedy's presidential campaign provoked national debate because he was Roman Catholic? Many of us lived through those times, felt the bigotry, and understand the effectiveness of those prejudices.
In a hatchet job that makes Lee Atwater look like a schoolmarm by comparison, Fazio is making a calculated effort to shift the debate away from the president's mixed record as a world leader and the disarray and broken promises that have characterized this administration. The strategy is despicable. And it is incredibly hypocritical.
Those who vote their consciences are vilified if their consciences include a religious faith and a moral code based on that faith. Here, the unpardonable sin is to use politics to impose a personal view with a religious grounding on society as a whole. But, of course, that is what politics is all about. Fazio does not sound the alarm against ``fire breathing'' health-care reformers who pursue policies that limit choices; mandate lower levels of health care; and radically alter a system that most people want to preserve.
The president and Hillary Rodham Clinton, while campaigning and now from the White House, appeal to ideals, to a moral sense, to core beliefs that inspire their policies on everything from health care and welfare reform to crime control, foreign policy, and public service. Both Clintons credit their religious faith as a source of many of their convictions. In fact, most Americans would do the same.
How should we respond to such attacks? First, the Clintons should lead their party away from prejudice-for-the-sake-of-votes. Both have talked about their religious beliefs and how those beliefs enliven their public lives. Religion bashing should be red-lined from the top down.
Second, all Americans need to let it be known that attacks on religious beliefs threaten all people of faith and that such tactics will not be effective. Democracy demands this. One's vote is not less valuable because one gains inspiration and insight from the Bible, the Koran, the Talmud, or any other writings considered holy by people of faith. Those in the Fazio mold need to be reminded of this.
Finally, Americans should force national leaders to run on their record. With the presidency, the House, and the Senate all controlled by the Democratic Party, it is almost inconceivable that the leaders of that party, and candidates endorsed by that party, must hide from the party's record. The issue is neither the religious right nor the radical left; it is the religious bigotry that is creeping into politics.
Alexis de Tocqueville said, ``Liberty regards religion as the safeguard of morality, and morality as the best security of law and the surest pledge of the duration of freedom.'' Democracy begins to dissolve when the people to whom it is entrusted collectively lose their moral compass - a compass which, for many of us, has its basis in religious faith. To campaign against such ideas is both foolish and dangerous.