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Faith-Based Opportunity

David Gray of the New America Foundation penned the following letter in response to my column this morning about Democratic Presidential hopefuls deciding what to do with the White House Office of Faith Based & Community Initiatives:

Funding charitable initiatives at home and abroad has great merit. Speaking strictly politically, it is interesting to see how the two different parties do, and can, outflank each other on such funding.

President Bush has gotten great credit in many circles by outflanking Democrats on the issue of funding AIDS and debt initiatives in Africa. Most people assume that Democrats would take the lead in spending on these initiatives, but the President has received much praise relative to the Democrats from unlikely sources, such as U2's singer Bono, for his spending in these areas.

On the domestic front, Democrats have an opportunity to outflank Republicans on the issue of faith based initiatives.

Tom Bevan wrote an excellent article (http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2007/02/will_democrats_keep_the_faith.html) in RealClearPolitics on February 5 about the potential future of the White House Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives (Office) under a potential Democratic President. Mr. Bevan posits that Democratic candidates will have to grapple during the '08 campaign with what they would do with the Office if elected, and he concludes that Democrats will likely keep the office and use it as an outreach tool. Much of the Democratic base is hostile to the creation of the Office and at least some of the presidential candidates thus far opposed its creation. With most moderate potential Democratic candidates (such as Bayh and Warner) are not in the race, frontrunners like Hillary Clinton will be pulled to the left. Does that make it likely a Democratic candidate would abolish the Office?

No. I believe Mr. Bevan is correct that a Democratic President will keep the Office. Perhaps the strongest argument that Democrats will keep the Office is "leave well enough alone." If a Democrat President was ambivalent towards the Initiative, they could keep the Office but render it powerless, effectively telling their base that they are ignoring it. However, actively abolishing the Office would anger evangelical voters at a time Democrats are making some inroads in that constituency, and effectively prove the point of conservatives who say Democrats are anti-religion.

I think Mr. Bevan is correct that the Office provides an opportunity for Democrats, but not only because it could help them open a dialogue with evangelicals. One prominent criticism of the Faith-based Initiative is that it was never funded properly. Former White House staffer David Kuo argues in his recent critique Tempting Faith that the Initiative could be successful if only the White House had put more emphasis on funding it. Congress controls the purse-strings, and if Democrats retain control of Congress after the next election perhaps a Democratic Washington would invest in the Initiative. This situation provides an opening for a Democratic President to outflank Republicans and make real connections with many faith based groups that traditionally do not vote Democratic by not only embracing the White House Faith Based Initiative, but by doing one thing that even Republicans have criticized the current White House for failing to do - fund it.