Jim Wallis’ “message”

Since November, many Democrats have asked Jim Wallis, the editor of Sojourners magazine, to help them develop a moral message–one that might reduce the Republican advantage among religious voters. Wallis says that he has been telling them to change their policy proposals, not just their rhetoric. He writes:

the minority party has been searching, some would say desperately, for the right ‘narrative’: the best story line, metaphors, even magic words to bring back electoral success. The operative term among Democratic politicians and strategists has become ‘framing.’ How to tell the story has become more important than the story itself. And that could be a bigger mistake for the Democrats than the ones they made during the election.

… What are your best ideas, and what are you for–as opposed to what you’re against in the other party’s message? Only when you answer those questions can you figure out how to present your message to the American people.

This is 100% right, in my opinion. Wallis provides an additional service by sketching out the main points of a liberal agenda that is explicitly moral. He has prompted the right discussion, but his proposals raise questions for me.

For example, Wallis recommends that the Democrats set a target of cutting the number of abortions in half. This would move them past the Clinton-era slogan that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare.” It could potentially give them very broad support on the abortion issue, because they would safeguard the right to terminate a pregnancy while also telling “pro-life” voters that they (and they alone) had a plan to cut the actual number of abortions.

But would the policy work? Wallis recommends “adoption reform, health care, and child care; combating teenage pregnancy and sexual abuse; improving poor and working women’s incomes; and supporting reasonable restrictions on abortion, like parental notification for minors (with necessary legal protections against parental abuse).” Democrats (including me) like it when the number of abortions falls because women have better welfare and more real choices. We do not like the number to fall because of legal restrictions, even “reasonable” ones. I could imagine embracing a policy that included both sides of the coin, as long as most of the reduction in the abortion rate came from the additional social support, not from the new legal limits. What do we know about the relative impact of those two kinds of proposals? For instance, would “adoption reform” really help?

Wallis also recommends that the Democrats take on poverty. Indeed, it is remarkable how little John Kerry said about the poor and near-poor, given that he was the candidate of the center-left. Even though the median family income of American voters is well above $50,000, I believe that some voters would respond to moral language about poverty, which would pay off politically.

Again, the issue is not what people want–they want less abortion and less poverty–but how to achieve that goal. Wallis is angry about “wartime tax cuts for the wealthy, rising deficits, and the slashing of programs for low-income families and children.” So am I. However, changing the distribution of wealth through the tax code only helps if the government spending is beneficial. Some programs help poor people, but others are wasteful or even counterproductive.

Wallis recommends a national “fair wage”: in other words, an increase in the federal minimum wage. There’s controversy about this proposal, but it appears that “moderate minimum wage increases do not reduce poverty rates,” partly because most of the lowest-paid workers are teenagers who are not poor, and partly because employers cut benefits when the minimum wage goes up. Bigger than “moderate” increases might reduce poverty; then again, they might increase unemployment.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that existing spending programs–mainly, Medicaid, the Earned Income Tax Credit, Food Stamps, and Supplemental Security Income–prevent 27 million Americans from being poor. Nevertheless, about 31 million remain poor, and many more are near-poor. It is quite likely that we could help more people if we expanded the existing programs, although that requires separate evidence. Furthermore, I doubt that many Americans would be inspired by a call to increase spending for Medicaid or the EITC. Who has more innovative and persuasive proposals?