Political strategist James Carville said it, candidate Bill Clinton believed it and loyal Democrats have chanted this mantra ever since.
And all the people said: "It's the economy, stupid."
But what if an elite team of Democrats ventured outside the Beltway to talk to rural and red-zone voters in Arkansas, Wisconsin, Colorado and Kentucky and learned that the economic bottom line was no longer the political bottom line?
Focus-group researchers from the Democracy Corp in Washington, D.C., found that voters in Middle America are worried about Iraq and they are mad about rising health costs. That's good for Democrats. Many of them fiercely oppose abortion on demand and gay marriage. That's good news for Republicans. But the researchers also mapped a political fault line that cuts into the soul of Middle America.
"Regardless of voters' attitudes on the role of religion in public life or their position on touchstone issues such as abortion and gay marriage or even their personal religious faith, they all see Republicans as a party with a clear and consistent position on cultural issues and an abiding respect for the importance of faith and traditional social norms," said the researchers, in sobering document released earlier this month.
"Democrats' lack of a consistent stance on cultural issues leaves a vacuum that is clearly being filled by voices on the right. Most referred to Democrats as 'liberal' on issues of morality, but some even go so far as to label them 'immoral,' 'morally bankrupt,' or even 'anti-religious.' "
This kind of verbiage is old hat among GOP conservatives. But it's stunning to see this language in a report produced by a trinity of Democratic campaign strategists like Stanley Greenberg, Robert Shrum and, lo and behold, Carville.
The new bottom line: "It's the values, stupid."
Democrats are getting used to hearing about a "pew gap" between the political parties. This has caused tension between moderates and liberals as Democrats focus on defending abortion rights and working with gay-marriage strategists. Party leaders must have been thinking about the "pew gap" when they rejected Naral Pro-Choice America's blistering media campaign that said U.S. Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr. -- a traditional Roman Catholic -- had winked at "violence against other Americans."
Politicos on both sides can quote the numbers and then bicker over what they mean. Everyone knows that 22 percent of the 2004 voters said they yearned for "moral values," with evangelical Protestants surging to George W. Bush. The president won 52 percent of the Catholic vote and nearly 60 percent of the total Protestant vote. Bush won a two-thirds majority among Orthodox Jews. Among Hispanics and African-Americans, the most active churchgoers began drifting to the GOP.
Looking back, Voter News Service found that 14 percent of the voters in 2000 said they attended worship services more than once a week and 14 percent said they never went at all. Among the devout, Bush won by 27 percent and, among those who avoid pews, Democrat Al Gore won by 29 percent.
According to the Democracy Corp report, Democrats are making progress with highly educated, upper-income Americans. But they have lost a key element of the old Democratic coalition -- voters in rural areas and blue-collar neighborhoods, especially in Middle America. The researchers were mystified that these voters continue to act "contrary to their own economic self-interest."
Up is down. In is out. Many upper-crust Americans are also voting contrary to their own economic self-interest and backing Democrats, even though this may mean more taxes and business regulations. Why? They support the Democratic Party's stance on social issues such as abortion, gay rights and the role of religion in public life.
These moral issues are steering heartland voters, serving "as a proxy" for other concerns, according to the Democracy Corp report.
"With most voters expressing little understanding of the differences between Democrats and Republicans or the relative merits of their positions on economic policy, health care, retirement security, and other issues, they felt it safe to assume that if a candidate was 'right' on cultural issues -- i.e. opposed to abortion, but most importantly opposed to gay marriage and vocal about defending the role of faith and traditional Judeo-Christian values in public life -- that candidate would naturally also come closest to their views."