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Democrats stray far from America's traditional values

On business, labor, education and abortion, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. says, a once proudly blue collar party has lost its way

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

8:00 AM EDT, July 21, 2013

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My new book concerns the countercultural views of today's progressive Democrats. This is not your father's liberalism, and it is certainly far removed from the local Democratic Party I was exposed to as a young kid growing up in Arbutus. That Democratic Party was blue collar in orientation and pretty conservative to boot. Its platform was pro-labor, pro-life, pro-gun, and it was led by small businessmen — many of whom were longtime chairmen of legislative committees in the Maryland General Assembly.

Such "Kennedy" Democrats are hard to find now; their conservative views are antithetical to most Democratic leaders today. The new Democratic Party borrows heavily from public-sector unions, social-welfare activists, anti-war groups, anti-gun advocates, feminists, and abortion-rights groups. A recurrent theme is to challenge widely established definitions of norms and values within American culture.

Entrepreneurship. For most of us, empowerment translates into individual action and achievement; to do for oneself without government aid. But the Obama administration possesses a decidedly different mindset. Recall the president's campaign line, "You didn't build that," a not-too-subtle reminder of Barack Obama's fondness for government activism — and far less appreciation for private initiative.

Mr. Obama's appointees adopt similar rhetoric. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack famously said the food stamp program was the "most direct stimulus you can get in the economy during tough times." This beauty was followed by Press Secretary Jay Carney's contention that greater numbers of unemployment checks are the most direct way to stimulate the economy. (Perhaps this explains why Obama economic policies have given us unemployment over 7 percent for 54 straight months.)

The pattern is hard to miss: Obama-era progressives do not measure freedom through familiar gauges. Here, increasing government dependency is viewed as economic stimulus. Here, individual dependency is not seen in a negative light. Here, self-made entrepreneurs are not celebrated; after all, they didn't build that. Here, success is measured by how much government (especially the federal government) has grown, not shrunk.

Education. Progressive teachers unions adamantly oppose school choice (private vouchers and independent public charter schools). This, despite the fact that the vast majority of intended beneficiaries are poor, African-American and Hispanic children sentenced to often-dysfunctional schools. And it was not so long ago that "social promotion policy" was the latest hot thing in progressive education circles. You remember that one: the notion that self-esteem should guide grade promotion as much as academic performance. That socially promoted students would find themselves at academic disadvantage seemed to be of no great concern to the advocates of this feel-good nonsense.

Abortion and birth control. The old dividing line between pro-life and pro-choice seems antiquated. Today's progressives seek to remove all restrictions on abortion, including "partial birth abortion" and "conscience clause" protections for religious institutions. Parental authority over minors' access to birth control and abortion is likewise opposed. And the constitutional right to "free" (i.e. taxpayer funded) birth control is further asserted, with few dissenting voices within the party.

Unions. Private-sector labor unions improved working conditions and contributed mightily to a healthy working class in America. But today, a more radicalized union movement values its political agenda over the interests of its members. Which is not terribly newsworthy — until such attitudes kill economic opportunity.

A recent case in point concerns the D.C. City Council and progressive hatred of Walmart. The esteemed council recently voted to impose a super-minimum wage (a union-defined "living wage") on large retailers within the District of Columbia. (Such initiatives reflect the growth of special wage laws that often cause marginal, unskilled workers to lose their jobs.) The D.C. vote was accomplished with full knowledge that passage would cause Walmart to cancel its plans to build up to six new stores in the District. Total new job creation was projected to be approximately 2,000 positions, with millions in new revenue flowing into the city treasury. (D.C.'s unemployment rate is 8.5 percent.) Walmart promptly canceled plans for three new stores and will reexamine plans for three others that are already under way. Prediction: There will be absolutely no political repercussions for the job-killing members of the council.

The progressive campaign to redefine our economic and cultural values proceeds apace: the tripling of Social Security disability claims, endless extensions of unemployment benefits (now up to 99 weeks), women in active combat units, gay marriage, government takeover of health care (Obamacare), and citizen benefits (driver's licenses, welfare) for illegal aliens represent additional examples of Obama-era progress.

There are a few clouds on the horizon, however. These initiatives are far more popular in (Democratic) coastal states as opposed to (Republican) "flyover" states. Obamacare continues to be a public relations nightmare. Unemployment remains at historic mid-recovery highs. The federal deficit now exceeds $17 trillion. And waning American respect across the globe now creeps into our political discourse.

Returning Senate control to the GOP would be a logical step in a cultural (and policy) turnaround. The country (especially flyover states) will have an opportunity to make that happen in 2014.

Next week: GOP challenges.

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding and the author of "Turn this Car Around," a book about national politics. His email is ehrlichcolumn@gmail.com.