December 1, 2004
Democrats Must Make Changes

By Ed Koch

Since the elections, Democrats have declined to take any action to start moving the party in a different direction. It may happen, but I doubt it. If changes don't take place, I have no doubt that the reverses the party suffered this year -- a four-seat loss in the House, a five-seat loss in the Senate and, of course, an unsuccessful presidential bid -- will continue.

In order for the Democratic Party to reverse these losses there has to be a major realignment. The Democratic Party should be center left. It is or appears to be radical left. My specific suggestions are as follows:

First, Democrats should organize public discussion in different venues to seek feedback from various Democratic constituencies on what the party needs to do to reverse the recent losses. New ideas, hopefully, would be generated.

Second, Democrats should examine why the South, at one time a bastion of the Democratic Party, appears permanently lost to the Republicans. It is no secret that in the South, the Democratic Party is now overwhelmingly viewed as the party of African-American voters, and the Republican Party is overwhelmingly viewed as the party of white voters. It would be easy to simply conclude that Southern whites left the Democratic Party to demonstrate their opposition to national civil rights legislation enacted with the support of Lyndon Johnson and every Democratic president since Johnson. If that is what has occurred, it may be that the South is lost for the foreseeable future to the Democrats, and no tears need be shed. But, if there are other reasons outside of race, then we should learn what they are and see if the party philosophy is at fault.

Third, we must make sure we are a national party that is attractive to every part of our country. Some Republican leaders have stated that what defeated the Democrats was “guns, gays and God.” Yet, we know that many negatives can, if appropriately addressed, become positives. What if, in the case of guns, the Democrats made that issue a state rather than federal issue and fought for controls in the fifty state legislatures in accord with local party interest. New York and West Virginia see this issue differently. Therefore, the New York Democratic Party would try to pass gun control legislation in the New York State Legislature, whereas the West Virginia Democratic Party would focus its energy on other issues. We should learn what positive results have come out of the huge effort made nationally for greater control of guns over the last fifty years, especially in the area of gun injuries and deaths. The Democratic members of Congress should ask the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to publicly report on the impact of gun legislation to date.

On the issue of abortion, we know the country is split. Some interesting Gallup poll statistics show the following:

In a poll conducted on May 2-4, 2004, when asked, “Do you think abortions should be legal under any circumstances, legal only under certain circumstances, or illegal in all circumstances?” 24 percent responded “legal under any circumstances,” 56 percent responded “legal only under certain circumstances,” and 19 percent responded “illegal in all circumstances.” 1 percent answered “no opinion.”

In a poll conducted on January 12-15, 2004, when asked, “Now I would like to ask your opinion about a specific abortion procedure known as ‘late term’ abortion or ‘partial birth’ abortion, which is sometimes performed on women during the last few months of pregnancy, do you think that [Rotated: the government should make this procedure illegal, (or do you think that) this procedure should be legal]?” 68 percent responded “illegal” and 25 percent responded “legal.” 7 percent responded, “No opinion.”

While the Democratic party must continue to be a defender of the constitutional right of abortion as articulated in Roe v. Wade, it is counterproductive for the Democratic party to be seen as the defender of the procedure known as partial-birth abortion. The U.S. Supreme Court has in several decisions made clear the medical procedure must be available if required to save the life of the mother or safeguard the mother’s health. The Republican majority , seeking to end the use of the procedure, has enacted legislation outlawing it by foolishly stating there can never be a health issue requiring its use. A federal district court judge, himself staunchly opposed to the procedure, has ruled that the Congress cannot by declaration eliminate the U.S. Supreme Court’s health exception. What should the Democrats do? Offer legislation that defines the health exception, limiting it to reproductive health, meaning the affect upon the woman’s ability to bear children in the future.

What should the Democratic party’s position be on gays? I believe there are three immediate measures that need to be taken that would be acceptable to an electorate not ready to adopt same-sex marriage. One, place our military enlistment policy on the same basis as that of our NATO allies, all of whom permit enlistments and retention of military personnel who are publicly or privately identified as gay or lesbian. Punishment for breaches of the military code should be the same whether the conduct is heterosexual or homosexual. Second, allow same-sex civil unions all of the benefits of marriage -- tax, medical, economic and others. Third, enact national legislation barring discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing and all other pursuits.

The Democratic Party should also re-examine its position on public religious activity, including the funding of parochial schools. The debate on the First Amendment will be whether it simply bars preferment of one religion over another but allows support for all equally, or is there a constitutional prohibition barring any support? It may be possible to chart a middle course between baring all public support of religion and supporting religious activity without preferring one religion over another.

Real changes take time, which means that time is of the essence. Democratic Party leaders at all levels should begin the discussions now.

Ed Koch is the former Mayor of New York.

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