Pew Research Center
John Podesta, President and CEO, Center for American Progress; former Chief of Staff to President William J. Clinton
Michael Cromartie, Vice President, Ethics & Public Policy Center
With Additional Comments By:
Luis Lugo, Director, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
Andrew Kohut, Director, Pew Research Center
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Welcome, ladies and gentlemen. This is the second Pew Forum Lunch, which will be an ongoing series that we'll have almost once a month. Our last meeting was with Michael Gerson from the White House, and we're delighted today that John Podesta could be with us. I immediately want to say that we're very sorry that my colleague and fellow senior advisor to the Pew Forum, E.J. Dionne, is not able to be with us today.
Let me just tell you quickly our format here. After John Podesta speaks, we are going to open it up to you. This is a conversation, a dialogue, and I'm going to keep a running list of people who want to get in. So if you have something to add, just let me know and I'll put you down and we'll do this in order with great civility.
I'm a believer in not giving long introductions for people we all already know. And I know you're here because you know who John Podesta is. You may not know that he is currently the president and chief executive officer of the Center for American Progress. As you know, John served as chief of staff to President Clinton from October 1998 to January 2001. And he's very much involved these days in the topic that we're discussing today - faith, politics and progressives. And so we couldn't have a better person to address that subject than John Podesta. John, thank you so much for coming.
JOHN PODESTA: Thank you, Michael. Let me start by telling you how much I personally appreciate the tremendous contribution that the Pew Forum has made to America's dialogue about the relationship between faith and politics. I don't think there's anybody who exemplifies that more than the work that E.J.'s done on the journalism side. We share a fondness for all things liberal Catholic.
I thought I'd begin with reflecting a little bit about what has gone on in the last couple of weeks, tell you what we're doing, and then spend a couple of minutes talking personally about why those of us at the Center are engaged and involved with this. I think that the last few weeks really do underscore the vital importance of the discussion the Forum is engaged in. And hopefully the reporting you all do will amplify that as well. We've seen the passing of John Paul II and the ascension of Pope Benedict XVI. Millions of Americans, I think, have joined in an unprecedented conversation about the future of the Catholic Church and the role of the church in politics. I go to Holy Trinity in Georgetown, and I know that was the great topic of discussion this last week.
Meanwhile, last Sunday we also saw the majority leader of the United States Senate join forces with leaders of the Christian right in an effort to use religion to promote his party's political doctrine. I think it's kind of tempting to look at these events, particularly then-Cardinal Ratzinger's letter in the U.S. election and the majority leader's engagement and involvement and his use of religion. Some people suggest that it might have something to do with his presidential campaign.
It's tempting to look at that and believe, as I think many opinion leaders do, that whatever common ground there is between the walls of faith and politics, it's generally on the right. I think that enhanced the belief that American politics is polarized into two warring factions: a religious right that promotes government intervention in all areas of private life, so long as it doesn't interfere with the free market, and a secular left, which would be content to do the opposite. I think that's a simplistic assessment and it may explain why it's so widely held, because it is so simplistic. But obviously, I think, as particularly people here know, the reality of this is far more complex.
At the very same time that Senator Frist was preparing to argue that confirming President Bush's judicial nominees is fundamental to religious freedom, millions of Jewish families were preparing to observe Passover, the holiday that reminds all of us that the quest for justice and human dignity is fundamental to the Abrahamic tradition. It's a moral tradition that I think has led millions of Jews and Protestants, Catholics and Muslims, and other Americans of faith to a far different path than the one trod by the political right - by figures like Dr. Dobson and his political patrons.
Historically, whether we're talking about Frederick Douglass or Dorothy Day or Rabbi Heschel or Dr. Martin Luther King, or the millions they helped to lead, there's an America that expressed its faith by fighting for abolition and for women's suffrage, by walking picket lines, by marching for civil rights, by protesting the war in Vietnam. The progressive religious tradition not only predates the Dobsons and the Robertsons, it certainly continues to this day and I think - and this is my plea to you today - that it is something that is highly under-reported in the coverage of religion in public life today.
But we do see it in local campaigns to win a living wage for low-income workers. The Center was involved with ACORN - and a broad religious coalition - in trying to raise the minimum wage in Florida, the ballot initiative that was successful in the 2004 election. We see it in efforts to protect voting rights, we see it in the campaigns to provide debt relief to the most impoverished countries on earth, we see it in the movement to promote peaceful conflict resolution both at home and abroad. But I would argue that where we need to see much more of this and much more of this conversation is right here in this city - in the media and in every forum where the spiritual dimension of public policy is considered.
I think the tragedy of Terri Schiavo, where conservative politicians - in my view - exploited one family's personal anguish to curry the favor of the religious right, is one instance where America would have benefited more from a visible religious center. As Rabbi Steven Jacobs of Los Angeles asks, where is the morality in Tom DeLay's fighting to keep Mrs. Schiavo on life support while at the very same time he was fighting to slash funding for Medicaid, the federal program that was paying for her hospice care?
Is this broader and, I think, more textured understanding of morality out of sync with the beliefs shared by the American people? I actually would argue to the contrary, and I think the Washington Post-ABC News poll that came out this morning reflects that. In the aftermath of a November election, conventional wisdom held that moral values won the election for conservatives and they were now in ascendancy while progressives were doomed or just off the field. As my friend Jim Wallis says, it's amazing what one faulty exit poll question can do. But it sparked an important debate, which we're engaged in here even today.
But after the hype of the facts of that exit poll question subsided and the factual analysis began, we know that a far different story emerged. It's clear that President Bush motivated his base around opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion. He was on solid footing with the conservative wing of the religious community. I think it did fire up his organizational base, if you will, the people who were pounding the pavement in Ohio, where Jen Palmieri, our press secretary, was. But I don't think it won the hearts and minds of a new silent majority, which is waiting in the wings - Americans who believe that you don't need to be conservative in order to be religious.
We conducted a poll with a couple of organizations we had worked with over the course of that year - Pax Christi, a liberal Catholic organization, and a group called Res Publica - that Zogby did after the election, and what we found in that national poll was that 54 percent of the electorate is a coalition of religious moderates. So-called religious progressives and other non-traditional voters made up 54 percent of the overall electorate. I understand that the new Pew study is coming out in a few weeks that really begins to micro-analyze the electorate, and we'll see what that looks like.
We asked the question, What were the most important moral values facing the country? And I think that was perhaps where the most interesting result was: 64 percent said that greed and materialism and poverty and economic justice were the most important moral questions facing the United States; 27 percent said abortion and gay marriage, with abortion accounting for the vast majority of that. The truth is that many people of faith are worried about the coarsening of our culture, but they're also worried about their children's schools, about the quality of air we breathe, about the water they drink, about the increase in poverty. They're concerned about terrorism and war. These are not Americans who hear their faith or their politics in the voices of Pat Robertson and James Dobson and others on the religious right - and maybe I should add Bill Frist and Tom DeLay to that mix. In fact, these Americans resent the efforts of conservatives to squeeze religion into a narrow, rigid mold - a personal piety that excludes much of God's creation and many of God's children. Clearly, many would identify with that progressive religious tradition that I was speaking about earlier, where historically social change has come from in this country.
And we at the Center - let me talk a little bit about what we're up to - are committed to helping them show that it does. This has been a project that began really when we formed the Center, when we opened our doors in October of 2003. I talked Melody Barnes, who is sitting over here - some of you know her from her work on Capitol Hill - into joining us, and people ask me, why did we get into this? Melody comes from a Protestant tradition and I come from a Catholic tradition. I think we began it because we were mad, quite frankly. We were mad that we thought there was a complete distortion of the role of religion in public life; that to be religious was to be conservative. And that wasn't the tradition we came from and our faith meant a lot to us and we thought that it probably meant a lot to a lot of other people whose voices weren't being represented. And we made this part of the central work of the Center, as I said, from the very beginning. I'm going to talk about some of the specific things we did - some of you are familiar with them if you've been to our events - and then talk more generally about how we view this, and then I'll stop and take questions.
We began last June when we brought together more than 400 clergy, advocates and scholars who attended our first faith and policy conference. It was dedicated to a faith agenda aimed at bringing people together, not stigmatizing them, not dividing them. It crossed sectarian lines because our faith is offended. And people from all those traditions, I think, shared this. Our faith is offended when our nation allows 1 in 6 children to live in poverty - we're 45 million Americans; 19 million lack health insurance - when disease, hunger, poverty and war ravage 2 billion people on the planet, when our leaders deny the damage that their policies are plainly doing to God's earth and our own society. I don't think we had all the answers at that conference, but we started with the belief that whether you're a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim or a Buddhist, you loved your neighbor and you recognized your responsibility to your community and to the nation. The people who came together, I think, truly believed that progressive governance is not only more fair and effective, but it is the right thing to do in a profoundly moral sense.
We have proceeded from that in two fashions. One is that we try to have a commitment to making clear and making sure that this is a piece of our policy work, that the values agenda, if you will, that I think is reflected by that silent majority of religious moderates and religious progressives is part of the work we do. We try to frame up policy choices and governmental choices in terms that people who come from different faith traditions are familiar with.
To give you a specific example - but we do this, I think, across the board - we put out recently a universal health care proposal that is a practical proposal that can get to a universal coverage, make the right kinds of investments in the health care system, build on existing systems, and create a kind of cost-effective health care platform. But we didn't just argue it on economic terms; we tried to bring the religious voices to bear. We held a forum where we had Frank Griswold, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church; a conservative Jewish theologian from Northwestern; and a Catholic theologian from Georgetown to try to put the commitment to health care for every person living in America in a profoundly moral context. We thought that was important and sort of a missing element - reflecting backwards - a missing element of what we tried to do in 1993 and 1994 in the Clinton administration.
When we launched that effort at the Press Club, Bill Byron, the former President of Catholic University and a great Jesuit who has written widely on this topic, came in support of that effort. I think it is important to reach people at that level, not just to argue about the economics, the costs of health insurance, the effect on GM, but the effect really in people's hearts and the way they perceive the work of the government. So whether it's Social Security or health care, I think we have a commitment to try to lift that policy work up and try to frame it in an agenda that appeals to and resonates with people from a moral perspective.
Another important thing that we did was we didn't try to teach politicians how to talk the Bible, but we did try to bring the voices of the progressive religious community into the public debate. One of the people who attended our conference and who has become quite prominent in the media these days was Jim Wallis. We had Jim Forbes, Bob Edgar, Sue Thislewaite; we had a range of religious voices that we tried to lift up, to give them the support that they needed. We did a day of media training with that group, and I always kid them that you'd think if they're a bunch of people that got paid to talk for a living, it would be a bunch of ministers, priests, rabbis and nuns.
And yet I think they were intimidated quite frankly by the television format - one that had been mastered so mightily by the right. Now they're used to kind of talking to an audience that can't leave - (chuckles) - and they're used to talking to a 20-minute sound bite - yeah, in 20 minutes we'll have the sound bites - but I think they appreciated that. I think it was helpful and I think Jim appreciated it as he went off to the environs of "Jon Stewart" as well as "Meet The Press." And I raise that only because I think that there are a lot of ways in which we can value their voices, lift them up, make them part of the progressive dialogue, bring them back into the coalition for progressive change, but also feature them and highlight them and what they have to teach us. And we're committed to that as well.
And we try to educate the media and opinion leaders about what we believe; I guess that's what I'm doing here this morning. Melody is convening a series of national conversations in towns and cities across America, trying again to bring the religious community together with the policy community to talk about social change. She did the first forum in Denver recently. We're talking about doing that in places across the country. We obviously need to do more than just remind people of the history of progressive social change. We have to provide a forum for a new generation of religious activists. So people sometimes ask if what we want to achieve on the left is what religious conservatives have already created on the right. I think we can probably do better than Jerry Falwell, Ralph Reed, Tom DeLay and the others. What we're about, I think, is renewing and restoring a progressive religious tradition that for most of our history helped make ours a more benevolent, a more compassionate, a more caring society.
I'm Catholic, as I said earlier. I attend Mass, I take communion. It's a source of strength for me. I think it's really what makes me a progressive. And while - and I'll close with this - like many Catholics, there are issues where I disagree with my church, I could not help but be touched by what I think really all Americans experienced recently - the life and works of John Paul II. He once observed that America today has what he called a heightened responsibility to be for the world an example of the genuinely free, democratic, just and humane society. That is as clear and precise a statement of what faith has to say to politics, I think, as anything I could come up with. Those moral values not only help define me as a Catholic and as an American; they're the reason why in this time of conservative power, and particularly at a time when I see a conservative abuse of power, I'm standing my ground as a progressive and I am willing to get engaged in this fight and this debate for the direction of our country. Thank you.
MR. CROMARTIE: Thank you John, thank you very much.
JOURNALIST: John, some conservatives would argue that what they're fighting is really a defensive battle, that there's an ACLU-driven agenda to take expressions of faith out of the public square - a court takes out "under God" in the pledge of allegiance, for instance, and forces the removal of the Ten Commandments from a public space. I wonder if you could address that, but also, more importantly, this whole question of expressions of faith in the public square, which it doesn't seem like Democrats are comfortable talking about yet.
MR. PODESTA: Well, I'd say a couple of things. I was looking at a piece from the L.A. Times this morning that Peter Wallsten did on Janice Rogers Brown as one of the nominees. She gave a speech in Connecticut over the weekend, where she said that people of faith are embroiled in a war against secular humanists - this country's been so bitterly divided - it's not a shady war, but it's a war - these are perilous times for people of faith.
I think it's hard to look at America and think that this is a true statement of where we're at. Particularly if you look at this in comparison to other areas in the world. We have a very strong faith tradition. It's respected here. Most people proclaim a belief in God. They're free to worship where they want to. I think that in the Clinton administration, we tried to do as much as possible to enable people to cut through some of the weeds, particularly in the educational arena, about where expressions of faith could take place to create a space where religious free exercise wasn't being hobbled.
But on notion that the judiciary is to blame - you know, I could quote Dr. Dobson on his view of the court's majority, which doesn't care about the sanctity of life as a judicial tyranny to people of faith. I mean, who are we talking about? Bill Rehnquist? You know, seven of the nine justices were appointed by Republicans. So I think, what are we talking about? I think that people need to challenge that notion. It's their view, but I don't think it does reflect the reality in American life today. And I think from the perspective of the way Progressives or Democrats talk about religion, my advice is that the most important thing is to try to be authentic.
If you come from a faith tradition and you're comfortable expressing it, then you ought to go out there and do it, and I think people will respect you for it. And I don't think that the secular elements, if you will, or the non-believing elements of the broad Progressive coalition will think less of one for that. But I think there has been a little bit in the political world. There's been a bit of silencing, and I think that needs to be matched through active engagement.
JOURNALIST: Should "under God" be in the Pledge of Allegiance?
MR. PODESTA: I've lived with "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. I know it was added, but I think it was added in '54 when I went to school, and I said it every day. I don't think you're going to look at me and think it did much harm to me, so I think - you know, I'll come back to it. We've got 45 million people uninsured. We've got peoples' incomes collapsing. We've got the middle class under tremendous siege. We've got health insurance costs going up by 60 percent over the last four years. I'm happy to have "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, but let's get down and talk about what the real moral challenges facing this country are. And I think we've got to broaden that debate.
JOURNALIST: I spent a lot of time on the road with John Kerry last year and heard a lot of things that you've been talking about. I mean, every week - more than every week - "faith without works is dead," "a lot of good works the government can do," etc. And the stereotype of the Democratic Party is so deep that it never broke through and part of it was that we didn't write about it very much. And I'm wondering, is it enough to elevate progressive, religious voices? I mean, maybe the most valuable service a Democrat could do for the party is to re-educate political consultants about, you know - (laughter) - what should be the spine of the campaign or how best to communicate the character of the candidate.
MR. PODESTA: Well, I leave that to Governor Dean. There are people who are working on this, both David Price and Rosa DeLauro in the Congress, Senator Durbin and even Governor Dean, who's talked about this recently. I think their focus is, How do we change the political dynamic? How do we make people comfortable from a record point of view, from a candidate point of view? I have no argument with that, but I think if you do that without fundamentally doing also what we're doing, my sense is, you may have only some short-term political success. But unless you can also fire up and re-power these important, progressive religious voices and create networks across the country, focus them on actions that are in support of the kind of economic and health care policies that I think are fundamental to social justice and opportunity in this society, then I think maybe what they're doing is necessary, but I don't think it's sufficient.
We're a think tank, we're a secular institution. But our job is to try to act in partnership with progressive, religious institutions and progressive, religious leaders to really challenge the American public about what the moral questions facing this country are. And my guess is, if you did a poll - I don't know if it's in the Post poll; I didn't look deeply into it - but the Pledge of Allegiance would come a long way down after health care, how we're treating children in this country, what we're doing about the war in Iraq, what we're doing about HIV/AIDS in the world. I just think it's going to come down to this.
JOURNALIST: I just wanted to build on that last comment for a second because I think there are a lot of people - and I was one of them - who hit the Kerry campaign last year for not talking about religion unless it was in front of black audiences. That's when we saw it covered. And certainly those speeches were more explicitly religious than his comments other places. But now that I've gone back and looked over a lot of his speeches, I realize that it did come up a lot - the "faith without works" comments and references to his background in Catholicism.
I wonder if there is a double standard in place in terms of how religion's covered for Republicans and Democrats - so that often you'll see religion covered when Bush mentions it because it's just seen as part of who he is and part of his political and personal personality. Whereas with a Democrat, it either goes unreported or it's seen as possibly fake, probably pandering, and so that's kind of the frame in which it's seen. And certainly that reflects to some degree a reality within the two different parties. But, it's not as extreme as is reflected in the coverage. And I guess I'm just wondering why is it that things like that would go uncovered with the Democratic candidate and not necessarily -
MR. PODESTA: That's like an open mike question. (Laughter.) You know, I think it's absolutely a fair observation. If you reflect back just on the 2004 campaign and Senator Kerry, there are two different succinct phases in the Kerry campaign, in my view. I think the first six months was probably when you were writing about this. I know it's when I was squawking about it. I think during the first six months of 2004 John Kerry looked back on the Kennedy election in 1960 and drew the wrong lesson. Kennedy was being challenged for being a tool of the Catholic hierarchy. Kerry was being challenged for exactly the opposite perspective, that he wasn't truly a person of faith, interestingly by the same people who challenged Kennedy. (Laughter.) You know, I carry some of these ethnic, Catholic prejudices with me, so to speak - (laughter.)
So, interestingly, I think Kerry was sort of being challenged from 180-degree different perspective. And he gave the same answer for six months that Kennedy gave, when Kennedy gave his Houston speech. And I think it wasn't really until the summer - partly probably because of public rattling by people like you, and people like me, and private council by Mike McCurry and others - that that shifted.
JOURNALIST: It shifted in the summer after the Ratszinger memo came out, when he started to be challenged, when it became a possibility that he would not receive communion when he went to church. I agree with you, but it felt like you were hearing it wrong after that.
MR. PODESTA: I think, again, Catholics now are doubly disabled, once the question of abortion and communion and the relationship with the church becomes a kind of central, defining outlet to Catholic Democrats. Nobody seems to worry about Pataki and some of the others. Secondly, I grew up when the Mass was still in Latin, as John Kerry did. It's not like it's a church which is expressive from a kind of cultural perspective. It's a sacramental church. You know, we not only get to speak in English and respond a little bit to the priests, but it is not like the seven Protestant traditions of moral expression.
And so Kerry was, I think genuinely, sort of reflecting who he was and where he was. It wasn't normal for him to talk about his faith. That's sort of understandable growing up in a northern Catholic faith tradition. But I think that this challenge was coming. It was partly a deep fault within the Catholic Church and the Catholic hierarchy itself. But I think it was engineered by a relatively sophisticated campaign to make this an issue, largely led - you'll forgive me if I see conspiracy theories here - largely led by Deal Hudson and others who were in close contact with the White House.
So I think these vectors were coming in on him - and I think his response by the end was appropriate. But I think he was kind of slow to make the turn into the political headwind that was coming at him. And probably Swift Boat mattered more. He was kind of slow to make the turn on that headwind as well, but I think this was also something of a factor.
JOURNALIST: This is somewhat of a follow-up on the previous two questions. You said you got involved in this because you were mad. I would be interested to know whom you were mad at.
MR PODESTA: I was a little bit mad at you guys - (laughter). I was mad at the world. I mean, I thought that a real distortion was going on. That the common wisdom in reporting was that to be religious was to be conservative. And I think that it seemed ahistoric to me, if that's a word. It seemed wrong and I knew it didn't feel like what I was experiencing every week when I went to church - and I go to a very religious church.
JOURNALIST: Don't you think it's a little telling, though, that 25 years after the rise of the Moral Majority and Pat Robertson in 1988, you're conducting media training sessions on how to act on TV for people in the Progressive tradition?
MR. PODESTA: I think that it is what it is. I think if you think about the big national media in the coverage of the civil rights movement, and you think about the structure of the media currently today, we live in a different media environment. It isn't to say that there weren't extremely conservative status quo elements, particularly in the southern media back then. But we do live in a different media environment. They were quicker to make the turn into the new media environment. I don't think that our gang, if you will, really saw that as their mission.
I think that they were doing important work at the grassroots level, but as a result, many of the things that they were fighting for in the grassroots movement inside churches, inside synagogues, inside mosques, was being overwhelmed by public policy that was undermining all the important work that they were trying to do. So it was important to get back out and compete for that space. I saw the piece in the metro section of the Post on the new dean who's just been installed at the National Cathedral, who's kind of making these same points and trying to root that church in the community and in the larger dialogue in this city.
JOURNALIST: Looking back over the issue set that you were describing here, and your argument that a new, more left-leaning religious-political movement could be built around it, you mentioned voting rights, debt-relief, health care and education. And it seems as if there's a sort of asymmetrical warfare going on here because for the religious right, the issues are, you either ban abortion or you don't; you either give school vouchers or you don't; you either ban gay marriage or you don't. Whereas if you put 100 people in a room and ask them how to fix health care, you're going to get 100 different answers. And the same is true with education and debt-relief. Are these realistically ever going to be the kinds of issues that you can build a political movement around in terms of good and evil on one solution versus another?
MR. PODESTA: Well, that's a good question, but I guess my fundamental view is, we have a history of kind of complex social problems in which there was change in movement as a result of people trying to do that. And that is the history of the civil rights movement. You know, the Voting Rights Act is a complicated piece of legislation, and so was the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
JOURNALIST: But they have a simpler sort of job here on the right, because the issues that they have coalesced around are ones in which the lines are so much brighter.
MR. PODESTA: Maybe so. But that doesn't mean that you abandon the field. Think of what happened during the millennium, when the religious community came together - left and right - around debt-relief: people got that; they got it and they drove it down into individual congregations and people mobilized. They changed the political dynamic, and something got done. You know, if we were sitting here in 1996, people would have said, "Are you kidding me - you really think that people are going to care about debt-relief in Africa?" And yet people were mobilized around it, and something good happened as a result of it. And I think fundamentally the reflection of values that I'm describing fits more comfortably with a majority of people in this country. It's more a part of where we've come from. It's more a part of the American experience.
What is important is to focus the energy that people have down at the congregational level on important social challenges. And does it take a national politician who can frame that and create a narrative around it and say that there are things we can do about it? Of course it does. And am I ready to assume that we will have such a person? Not yet. (Chuckles.) But I think you can only try to create the space for which that kind of political change happens.
JOURNALIST: In response to an earlier question, I wonder if one of the possible problems is that when you're thinking about a James Dobson or a Pat Robertson or probably a host of unnamed conservative Christians, there is the sense that they can actually move voters; that if they talk, action will follow. And I wonder if you can respond to that. I think media training is important, but to what extent do you think you have to focus not just on communications but actually building a grassroots movement not necessarily organized around issues, but organized to support your guy?
MR. PODESTA: I think that at some level I object to and reject the notion of turning churches into kind of the precinct houses for the party. I don't think the public particularly responds to that, and I'm not sure it's the right organizing model. So I actually think that it's much more critical to do the higher organizing and the strategic organizing church by church, synagogue by synagogue, mosque by mosque. There are some places where that works - it works on voter registration, voter education, etc., but I think that can't be just in support of a candidate. Maybe Dobson could do it. I don't think it's right. I don't think it's appropriate.
JOURNALIST: To what extent do you think that's then a handicap?
MR. PODESTA: I think it's more of a handicap that we have gotten A, an agenda that's not inspiring, and B, one that is not framed in big values that people understand. So the fact that we haven't quite employed the tactics of the RNC seems to me tertiary in that regard.
MR. CROMARTIE: Also you'd want to add, wouldn't you, that you don't have a radio program like Dobson does that goes out to 10 million people? When Dobson says something in the morning, the Senate switchboard literally blows a fuse. And maybe you don't have that radio network coming at your think tank?
MR. PODESTA: (Chuckles.) Maybe we'll put it over at Sojourners. What do you think?
JOURNALIST: To follow up on that earlier question, I think the difference, John, between the abolition movement or the civil rights movement is that they predated political interest in their topics, and the idea of someone in Washington elevating abolition would have been a big surprise to the cats in Boston, or someone in Washington elevating civil rights would have been a big surprise to the ministers in Montgomery. Do you have this thing upside down - are you trying to elevate the movement that doesn't exist? If you look at population numbers, progressive religious congregations are doing this, and conservative are doing that.
MR. PODESTA: If it sounded like that's what I was suggesting, then maybe there's a fair point there. I don't think it was what I was suggesting. At the end of the day, it's those religious institutions and religious leaders that are going to make this happen or are not going to make it happen. We're a secular institution. I think we can help them. We can add value on the public policy side. But we don't lead that movement. We don't pretend to lead that movement, and it's the strength of those religious leaders themselves that will create the movement. But what I disagree with - the description that you just made - is the notion that there's nothing going on. I think there's a lot going on on the ground level, and I think it needs nurturing, it needs push, it needs a little bit of help. I think that's where we're coming from.
JOURNALIST: Among voters, those who go to church the most often tend to vote Republican; those who go the least tend to vote Democratic. And among those two groups, the regular church-goers tend to see morality and faith in terms of absolutes, black and white: abortion is wrong for everyone. And those on your side, who tend to go to church less, seem to see morality as more of a personal cafeteria kind of thing: abortion may be wrong for me, but it's okay for my next-door neighbor. Can you ever reach over to the other side and get those moral absolutists and vice versa? Could they ever get your side over to theirs?
MR. PODESTA: I'm going to answer the second part of that question first. The number that surprised me in today's poll was this number on the support of the filibuster: 66 are opposed; 26 support. Do you think three months ago - before Schiavo, before DeLay, before Bill Frist, before Justice Sunday, as they like to call it - do you think that number would have been the same? I don't. I think that they are in danger of presenting a kind of a face to the American public that really has driven religious moderates and people who are church-attending away from this kind of radical version of what they are selling both from a religious perspective and a policy perspective.
To answer the first part of the question, I think there is a core of people who are never going to subscribe to a progressive version of politics in this country. But that is 20 percent of the electorate, not 49 or 50 percent of the electorate. And I think you can dialogue with people and create a bigger tent. I think you can capture votes and convince people of progressive policy solutions, and candidates who express a progressive vision of America, if you talk to them respectfully.
MR. CROMARTIE: On the poll numbers, could we ask Andrew Kohut to make some comments?
ANDREW KOHUT: John, I didn't see all of the Post poll. What was the 66 percent that you were referring to?
MR. PODESTA: Sixty-six percent opposed changing set rules to make it easier for Republicans to confront President Bush's leadership.
MR. KOHUT: Well, I don't know whether that number would have been any different pre-Schiavo. I think there probably is some backlash; it's probably in the center. But I have been listening to this conversation, and one thing that hasn't been talked about is that there are two sets of Democrats; there are two classes of Democrats that all Democratic candidates have to speak to. And the Democratic candidates cannot speak with the same ease and facility and straightforwardness that Republicans do because when core Democrats - many of who are secular - hear the kind of address to the religious wing of the Democratic Party, it makes them uneasy. In fact, the complaints of Democrats these days is that their party doesn't stand up for its principles to a much greater extent than is the case for Republicans.
And the Democrats have a terrific problem here. There may be a third wing - progressive religious people on the Democratic side who can be brought along or who can be addressed - but the major issue is the two, if not three wings of the Democratic Party. All of this is by way of a commercial - (laughter) - for the Pew typology survey, our latest version, which looks at the value differences between the parties and will be released in this very room in about three weeks. And I look forward to seeing all of you there.
MR. CROMARTIE: Before you respond, Luis Lugo would like to follow up.
MR. LUGO: On this question of a backlash, the Post poll also asks the question, "Do you think a political leader should or should not rely on his or her religious beliefs in making policy decisions?" And as you recall from our survey of almost two years ago, we asked a similar kind of question and in fact it was on George Bush specifically. And there was overwhelming support for bringing religion to bear on the policy process. If there was a complaint among Democrats on that one, it was that he didn't rely on his religion enough, particularly among African Americans. Only 15 percent of Democrats at that point thought he was relying on his religion too much.
In this poll, it shows a clear partisan divide with Republicans 62 to 35 that politicians should bring religion to bear in their decisionmaking; Democrats almost the reverse: 27 to 65 percent. So there now seems to be a partisan divide our polling did not detect. There were some differences, but on the margin two years ago. And if this poll is to be believed, that is clearly opening up into a partisan divide. It's hard to imagine that the Terri Schiavo case, Tom DeLay, Justice Sunday and those kinds of issues have not generated some kind of backlash, at least among Democrats, on this one.
MR. KOHUT: There may well be and we know over this period of time that there has been a good deal of political polarization. Just in a few years, we have seen members of both parties go to the positions of their parties to a greater extent. But I would also caution that in questions like this you have to look at the wording very carefully. They are very sensitive, so I'm going to say, perhaps, but I would really like to look at the question we asked a few years ago more closely.
MR. PODESTA: In this poll, Independents generally are tracking as Democrats here.
MR. KOHUT: Well, I think that is one of the issues for the Democratic Party - that there is a lot of unease in the center of the electorate with the influence that religious conservatives have in the Republican Party, and people in the center worry about their choices, and I think the Schiavo case has brought that home. Obviously Schiavo worried a lot of people left, right, and center, but the center is the problem for the Republican Party.
MR. LUGO: Well, my question to John based on this poll is whether it makes your job more difficult. If you now have a Democratic backlash against bringing religion into politics, period, why would the Democratic Party be more receptive to your efforts to bring progressive religious voices into the mix?
MR. PODESTA: That thought crossed my mind this morning when I read that poll. (Laughter.) But you know, I think there are two sides to this: there is the challenge for Democratic candidates, and there is the role of progressive religious voices in the public square. On the candidate side, I think if you're authentic and it's part of who you are and you express your conviction in those terms, then I think that the secular wing of the Democratic Party is unlikely to have a problem with you expressing a moral vision of the country that at least in policy terms they generally agree with. Maybe on some of the particular issues it's a more challenging job to blend those things.
But on the progressive-religious-voice perspective, I think it would be a terrible mistake to read this poll and decide that things are flowing towards a more liberal America, a more progressive America - that the overreaction and the abuse of power by the current crowd means we don't have to do anything. I think that would be a terrible strategic decision because quite frankly, I come back to where I was at the beginning: we need them out there making the case and I think that that is where the passion lies. I may be over influenced by the faith tradition I come from, but you need to stoke that up and I think that will in the end be why we end up with a more just and a more decent country. So that is what I believe.
JOURNALIST: This question goes back to what you were talking about earlier in terms of Kennedy's Catholicism in 1960. We have, of course, had another Catholic candidate this past summer; you watched that election, obviously. The question I have is, it a more complicated task for a Catholic to run for president in this country than for a Protestant?
MR. PODESTA: Well, I think that 2004 would certainly indicate that it is, in part because I think it raises the salience of the abortion question in a way that I don't think was raised with Al Gore in 2000, if my memory serves me. Of course, Bill Clinton had a somewhat different attitude, a different way of speaking about it. And we're seeing it in the Casey race in Pennsylvania, and potentially in that Senate race in Rhode Island - that if a Catholic runs now, the abortion question becomes front and center.
And so I think that makes the political task slightly more complicated. On the other hand, it seems to me that it is part of our public dialogue; you need to have an answer for it. I think that the fact that the press is going to lift it up and make it a bigger central issue that they want to chew on sort of goes with the territory. I think a test that a Catholic politician or a non-Catholic politician might bring to bear on this question is what set of policies are going to reduce abortion in this country. That is a commitment that a political leader trying to appeal to the center of the electorate might find some resonance with the public on.
Glen Stassen, for those of you who don't know, is an evangelical theologian in San Diego. He has made the argument that the rate of abortion under Bill Clinton went down by about 25 percent. It's going back up under Bush; it went up under Reagan. So I think that one has to have a dialogue with the American public about this, but I think it is somewhat more complicated for a Catholic because that is the first question out of all of your mouths.
JOURNALIST: It's kind of a complicated question, but would it be more complicated whether you're a Democrat taking the views on abortion that John Kerry did or, say, Jeb Bush - (chuckles) - and the abuse that he might have if he were running for president? Would it be, in other words, complicated on the Republican side as well?
MR. PODESTA: I don't know. That is a question probably for the people around the table. My guess is the issues with Jeb Bush, if he were going to run, would end up being end-of-life, not abortion, and whether he is in sync with the American public I think. So that is a different question.
Republicans like to pretend they have a big tent, but I don't see Rudy Giuliani being the nominee in the party. I think it's really complicated for a pro-choice Republican to run and get the nomination in the Republican Party - and that goes as well for a pro-choice Catholic nominee to run. Pataki's stock is down, and Giuliani's numbers look good going in, but I think he would have a very complicated task to try to get the nomination, given his views on abortion inside the Republican Party.
JOURNALIST: On the abortion issue, at the outset you invoked some of the great luminaries of the past - Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King. But they were civil rights leaders who used the language of the Bible to make the case for emancipation. The people doing that today are on the National Right to Life Committee, and they use moral arguments on why they think abortion is wrong and they talk about and protecting the least defensive; they talk about God's will and when life begins. And you may not agree with much of what they say - or you may agree with some of it - but they use these arguments.
Your side uses political arguments - slogans, really: a woman's right to choose, turning back the clock. And it's almost as though, from where I sit, your party won't engage them on their level; you sort of dismiss them. So my thought is, if you don't have a moral argument for abortion, maybe you ought to have one. What do you think?
MR. PODESTA: Well, I think that Senator Clinton's speech tried to get at this in terms of both saying that there are conflicting moral values, that you have respect for the other side's argument; and trying to frame this in terms that are morally significant for people, including the difficult circumstances women find themselves in and women being moral agents in terms of exercising their judgment and choice about this. But I think that the other side wants to have that discussion and dialogue, and they use the language of the Bible, but they use only the blunt instrument of the criminal law to execute it.
JOURNALIST: How about the bishops then? I'm talking about the other side of you on this issue - the Democrats. There are a lot of people that you respect making the argument that there is nothing magical about the birth canal and that Democrats have gotten themselves in a narrow point. And I was going to mention Hillary's speech. The fact that it made news underscores what I'm saying, it doesn't mitigate against it. That was a newsworthy speech.
MR. PODESTA: Yeah, it was newsworthy speech.
JOURNALIST: Because a Democrat said it. Should we say more of that? Should your party have a language on this?
MR. CROMARTIE: That is the purpose of your think tank, isn't it?
MR. PODESTA: I think that we are trying to really move the debate and dialogue forward on this. I guess I don't know that I have a better answer than to say, yes, I think that it is an important discussion. And I would argue perhaps from the same place that the Catholic bishops begin, that access to contraception is a good thing. They argue it's a bad thing. (Chuckles.) We're certainly not at the same end goal. But I think that actually having a real dialogue and a real discussion about this would be healthy for the party. Maybe we'll see that happen in the context of this Senate race in Pennsylvania.
JOURNALIST: You sort of dismissed the cultural coarseness question - games, Internet, movies - stuff that people are actually pretty upset about in their own houses. The party seems kind of quiet on this one, too. You don't have the same sort of base issues that you have with some of these other things we have been talking about, but -
MR. PODESTA: Yeah, I think that is a mistake. But I mean, do I have to own the party? (Chuckles.)
JOURNALIST: No, but you have to explain it for us. It's hard to know who to talk to. (Laughter.)
MR. PODESTA: I think that is a mistake; I think people expect political leaders to be on their side in trying to raise their kids and I think that there is some -
JOURNALIST: But you just don't hear them on it.
MR. PODESTA: We're working out some ideas on that front as well, though we're not ready to unveil. But I think that maybe it's for lack of ideas about what to do about it. Other people have suggested that it's more complicated than that or it's financial at its base, etc. - and that's probably true in both parties. But I think that there would be a lot of resonance for political leadership that really went out and talked about it.
I want to reflect on what I view as a policy choice that spoke to this question but didn't end up working, and that was the V-chip. At the end of the day, nobody knows that they have a V-chip in their television; nobody uses it - but I do think that in the dialogue there was an expression of something that resonated with people. And one might argue that wasn't exactly the right solution, but I think the fact that Al Gore or Clinton was willing to take that on was not just politically smart, I think it was responding to a role. The hard part of this question is what government solutions lend themselves, and what language people are comfortable with. But I think political leadership associating itself with the challenges that parents have in raising their kids is a good political strategy, and I hope there is more of it.
JOURNALIST: I want to offer a theory purporting to explain the poll that we have been talking about. It's a fairly simplistic theory, but it's that when Republicans communicate with Christian conservatives and their religious base without making too much noise in the rest of the society, they do really well. That is what they did between 2000 and 2004. When they get a little careless and make too much noise in the electorate at large, as at the 1992 Republican Convention and in the last several weeks, they upset a lot of people in the center. When they do that, it doesn't make a whole lot of difference what Democrats are saying or doing: they will pick up the residual support of people who think Republicans are going too far.
So what really matters is how careful Republicans are being in doing the subliminal work on the religious side that they did in the last four years. And when they stop doing that and start talking to too many people, then they are in trouble no matter what Democrats are doing on the issue. Does that make any sense?
MR. PODESTA: The first half certainly makes sense - (chuckles) - and I haven't thought about it exactly in those terms, but I think it's a very strong analysis of what we have just seen over the course of this spring. If Democrats draw the conclusion that it doesn't matter what they do - which I believe is a dangerous conclusion to draw - that would be a bad assumption and one that I would urge them not to make. So I disagree with the last half of the formulation, but I completely agree with the first half.
JOURNALIST: John, for years the problem for the Republicans, of course, was that Christian conservatives didn't participate in the electoral process - they just didn't vote. Then they became inspired to participate and the Republicans began winning more elections. You're talking about framing a number of issues in this sort of moral way - debt relief, environment, healthcare education. What evidence do you have that there is a great mass of religious progressives out there who care about these issues who aren't already voting for you?
MR. PODESTA: Well, the question of whether they are or aren't there voting - you know, I don't run the Democratic Party - (chuckles). So I don't enter the debate through that prism. If you follow Jim Wallis around the country, see him fill up churches, see the kind of reaction he gets, or if you follow Jim Forbes around the country and see the kind of reaction he gets, there are plenty of people out there who I believe are religious progressives and would make the call to, you know, a higher purpose.
They need leadership. I don't know whether they are already voting and they are already voting for us. But I think that will change the agenda in this country and it might change it for the better and that is why we are trying to do what we can to support the work. But I think whether or not this is a kind of a micro-analytic reaction to what exurban voters are hungry for in Ohio - it's just not the way we enter the problem. So maybe that is not a helpful comment to you; it's just kind of where I see things.
JOURNALIST: I just wanted to suggest another answer, which is that it's possible we're talking about two things here as well - that one is an agenda of issues that will appeal to voters who aren't currently voting for Democrats, and maybe that is finding a new way to talk about abortion, maybe it is the coarseness of the culture, maybe there are things like that that will attract moderate religious people. Another is a way to talk about core Democratic principles in moral terms that changes the image of the party in general, and I think there is where you're also going to have possibly an opportunity for Democrats to reach out to voters, not necessarily by saying, "This is an issue that polls well with these religious centrists," but by saying, "We talk about these things in very secular terms; maybe if we start articulating a moral basis for some of these issues, that will change the image of the party as a whole."
MR. PODESTA: Well, it might give them a stronger sense that they actually believe in something. (Chuckles.) That would be a good thing.
JOURNALIST: To a great extent, everybody in this room remembers Marilyn Quayle at the convention saying that this is us versus them. I'm wondering whether or not the division that we're talking about here carries on down through younger generations. I know that when you poll college students on gay marriage, you find that it's markedly different and maybe that is just college students and not young people. I'm curious to know whether young conservatives feel as strongly about abortion and gay marriage or whether they are more libertarian, and how religion plays a role in their lives.
MR. PODESTA: Well, younger voters are becoming increasingly tolerant, I think, particularly on gay issues; not just college students but younger voters in general. I think it's a little more complicated on the abortion question. I actually don't know the answer to that question about whether you have got a small, isolated core of voters who are really the most religious among the young people, and then everybody else, or if even people who are religious are more tolerant. But the trend among younger voters is certainly for greater tolerance, particularly on issues of sexuality.
MR. KOHUT: There is an extraordinary generational difference on acceptance of homosexuality generally and gay marriage specifically. But there are still Republican-Democratic differences between young people on questions about homosexuality and other issues. Homosexuality is obviously the one that most stands out as having a generational effect, but it doesn't wipe away the partisan differences all together by any means.
MR. PODESTA: And the same thing would be true on religious attendance to the extent that -
MR. KOHUT: Yeah, but that is more life cyclical than it is generational. I mean, younger people attend church less often. They attend more often as they get older, but the differences on homosexuality are generational, not life cyclical.
JOURNALIST: I lost a lot of my hair in 1988 following around a Democratic politician who spent a great deal of his time in churches. When he was in churches, he moderated his message; it was much more conservative. He did three and four churches a night. He got a lot of delegates, obviously, and his name was Jesse Jackson. He was able to talk in churches in very moral terms and then go out and talk on the street in terms that weren't moral at all. He was able to do that with remarkable flexibility. I'm not saying that he is the model, but it's not like it hasn't been done since, you know, Jimmy Carter.
But it surprised me that when you said you weren't so sure you wanted to organize churches that - the Republicans it seems to me, whether you're talking about faith-based or this Ratzinger -
MR. PODESTA: I didn't say I was against organizing churches.
JOURNALIST: It was tertiary, I think you said, in its importance. But it doesn't matter. (Laughter.) My point is that it wasn't high on your list. But I guess the thought was that between the Ratzinger letter and the faith-based initiatives and a number of other things that have gone on, I guess if Karl Rove were listening to this conversation he would say, "Wow, what a bunch of worriers. You know, they are all worried about the lines they might cross and the things they might do." And it just strikes me that at some point you have got to go where the votes are.
MR. PODESTA: I remember using the term "tertiary." I don't remember using it in that answer, but it seems to me that there is an appropriate role for organizing in churches, which I think I said was the most important thing. But I think that you asked me the question of whether we should organize on behalf of candidates inside churches, and I think that is where you cross the line, and I think that is what the RNC was trying to do in getting the voter lists in Pennsylvania. I think that is crossing the line. But so be it. You know, maybe other people in the party don't believe that. I think that is bad for religion in this country and I think it will ultimately be bad for politics in this country to sort of make them the political clubhouses for the Democratic Party. That's just not right.
JOURNALIST: Just to follow up on that, groups like Focus on the Family are cause-oriented groups. But then when a candidate does run, there is this network already in place that hops, too, and so they are not being organized around individuals; I'm not even sure it's legal for them to do that, but they are advocating on the filibuster stuff and gay marriage, and all kinds of things. So what is to stop Democrats from having philosophical, issue-oriented advocacy that is religiously oriented and having the same kind of network to be able to mobilize in an election that actually involves candidates.
MR. PODESTA: I think that that's the right model. I think that is what I was suggesting - that there needs to be mobilization at the church level around issues. I think Gary Bauer would probably say the same thing. That isn't a kind of secret way of, you know, keeping your tax status and being for Bush. That's a fundamental way of pushing your agenda forward, changing what the issue structure in the American debate is. And, you know, they do it, and I don't actually know all that Gary Bauer does, but it's hard for me to criticize him on the question of fighting for space and organizing on those terms.
I object to his policy views, of course. And I don't know exactly all that they do out there, so maybe they do stuff that I would object to. But the notion of organizing seems to me exactly what Martin Luther King and all the people I mentioned did. They organized. They organized down to the congregational level, and they organized passionately because they believed in the issues and the agenda for the country. And I guess the question is, is it then okay to go ahead and take that organizational structure - go in and get those church lists, organize the voters, make those churches part of an integral structure, make it political?
JOURNALIST: I simply wanted to address this gay-marriage issue that keeps coming up. As I listened to the candidates in the last election, the Democrats and Republicans were saying the same thing: they were against it; everybody was against it. So why did it become a voting issue and is there anything that progressives can do about that in the future?
MR. PODESTA: I said what I thought at the beginning, which is I think that it helped Republicans fire up their organizational base and the people who were their ground troops, so I think it had a political impact. The one straw in the argument that this really ended up being the fulcrum around which this election hinged was the increase in African American votes in Ohio that Bush got. And the other one I concede is maybe the Senate race in Kentucky. But I think there's precious little evidence that the fulcrum of this race was around gay marriage.
JOURNALIST: I contend that it was in this sense: that your candidate was perceived as saying something he didn't genuinely believe and that the party didn't genuinely stand for, which was that he was against it. I think that resonated with middle America as him telling us something that's not really true, that they really do think that it's somewhere between a neutral to positive thing for society.
MR. PODESTA: That's complicated -
JOURNALIST: But it is patronizing us by trying to get us to believe that he doesn't believe in it.
MR. PODESTA: Well, you were out there reporting. At the end of the day it seems to me they ran a lot of advertising against the guy, that he was a flip-flopper and that he lied about his medals in Vietnam. It seems to me that if he had a character issue around being resolute, it really came from the power of all that advertising and Bush's talking about it every day and framing it into debate more than it did around this. But what do I know? I just think you have precious little data - I mean, it's an interesting theory; I think you have precious little data to indicate that it's true.
JOURNALIST: I have precious little data for most things I say, John. (Laughter.)
MR. CROMARTIE: We have time for two more questions.
JOURNALIST: When you talk about the mobilization, I just think about the comparison of the Justice Sunday event that went to all of these radio stations and TV stations, and then there were two conference calls with reporters that some of the progressive religious leaders had, but that couldn't have gotten as much attention. So what kind of action steps do you recommend for the religious leaders to do this kind of mobilization you're talking about?
MR. PODESTA: Again, I think some of that has to be done down at the congregational and at the ministerial level. Some of it has to be done at the media level. I don't have a business plan for them, but it seems to me there's an openness and there's a space for people to occupy a media space that's much broader with the voices that I've mentioned. You know, people said there was no hope that you could put progressives on talk radio. That proved not to be true.
I think progressive religious leaders would find an audience if they could figure out their business structure and their business plan to get into the mainstream media. The easiest entrée point, I think, now ends up being broadband based communications techniques, but that's just because it's less expensive to get into the business that way. But my guess is that if you were able to create a kind of a business opportunity you'd find an audience the way progressive talkers are beginning to find their audience.
Maureen Fiedler is on about 50 stations, and she has a more progressive religious program. That's growing. She's gotten on more stations. She's a Catholic nun. I think that there's a business opportunity there, if you will, but that's not the business I'm in.
So I think you've got to do both. There is a lot of organizing done at the grassroots level by PICO and other organizations that work on social justice issues framed inside communities. I'd like to see more of that trickle up to a national dialogue.
MR. CROMARTIE: We have one more question.
JOURNALIST: John, in terms of trying to turn the religious progressives into a political movement, I'm wondering if you're going to have to deal with some sort of a fervency gap. It seems to me that church attendance and church participation is more of a central organizing principle in the lives of the conservative Christians who have integrated themselves as the Republican base - more so than for even many progressives who feel that they really are strongly of moral faith. Is it going to be difficult to organize progressives with the language of religion and moral values the way you're trying to?
MR. PODESTA: I think that's a good question for the religious leaders I've talked about, for an Edgar or a Wallis. I think there's an issue there. I think that that's a kind of a factual statement, really - that's just kind of the way it is. But the real question is whether leadership changes that, and I think it likely would. And, you know, at some level I do believe people are ready to be called. And I think that if you get the right kind of leadership, there will be a response to that. We've seen that over the history of this country, and I think it's a moment right now where you see it again but you've got to get the voices out there. I think that people will respond to it.
I think you see evidence of that in the kinds of places that I'm talking about and services I'm talking about, the willingness for people to get engaged. I pull threads from my experience, but the work we did in Florida was important and I think people got mobilized, they got energized by it, and they felt like they accomplished something. And you know what? They did accomplish something. People who are getting that dollar an hour are going to lead better lives because they did it.
MR. CROMARTIE: John, it's a testimony to your presentation that all these very busy journalists stayed here through the whole event. Please join me in thanking John for his time. (Applause.) They all usually run out about a quarter of. So thank you - we appreciate it very much.