Something historic happened last month, something almost unprecedented. Few of us saw it coming, and once it happened, few of us noticed. But for a brief moment -- the time it takes to flip a switch or, in this case, a lever -- Pennsylvania voters undermined much of the conventional wisdom of recent years. And they may have provided a clue about how Democrats can reverse the setbacks of recent years as well.
During the May 17 primary, Republicans and Democrats, rural folk and city dwellers, evangelicals and atheists, all found something they agreed on: the need for increased government spending on, of all things, the environment.
The measure was a referendum called "Growing Greener II." It authorized borrowing up to $625 million to improve water quality, conserve farmland and wilderness, and launch other environmental initiatives.
Such measures aren't supposed to succeed in George W. Bush's America. They certainly aren't expected to be popular with everyone. Nothing is supposed to be popular with everyone. We're a polarized nation, divided between red and blue, remember? We're a polarized state: As the saying goes, we're Philadelphia on one side, Pittsburgh on the other -- and Alabama in between.
But Growing Greener won in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Alabama alike. Statewide, a whopping 60 percent of voters approved the measure. It carried 47 out of 67 counties, from Philadelphia to Fayette, Allegheny to Adams. Tree-huggers backed it, of course, but so did gun-huggers: The NRA endorsed the measure, along with numerous hunting and wildlife-preservation groups.
"There is a new environmental coalition that includes hunters and anglers," says Jeanne Clark, a spokesperson from the environmental group PennFuture. The coalition wasn't easy to build, she says: because "The traditional environmental community hasn't liked to work with hunters, because they don't like killing things." It's the old red-state blue-state divide. Yet over months of talking, Clark says, she realized that "Far more than me -- I'm a city girl -- these [hunters] are really seeing how we're losing the environment."
When you think about it, a coalition between tree-huggers and gun nuts is no more unlikely than, say, a coalition of CEOs and Christians. Yet together those groups form a cornerstone of the Republican base.
The GOP holds that coalition together by keeping it divided it from everybody else. Case in point: the anti-gay-marriage Constitutional amendment, which appeared on numerous state ballots during last year's presidential election. Arguably, the amendment helped boost turnout among Bush supporters, especially in Ohio. Don't be surprised if Republicans bring up the amendment here in November 2006 -- just in time to help Senator Rick Santorum in his re-election effort.
How to counter such tactics? When Republicans use a referendum to drive people apart, maybe Dems ought to search for ballot initiatives like Growing Greener -- referendums that can bring us together.
Growing Greener shows that even as the Democratic Party is flailing, its principles -- like environmentalism and timely government intervention -- may be as healthy as ever. And not just here in Pennsylvania: Last November, voters in two states that went for Bush, Nevada and Florida, approved statewide hikes in the minimum wage.
Like I said, though, those states went for Bush. Even when voters like Democratic principles, they don't always like Democratic candidates.
The problem is that Democrats often seem uncomfortable with their own ideals. Just ask Jeanne Clark: In March, she published a cri de coeur in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette decrying the fact that Santorum's most likely Democratic challenger will be a pro-lifer: state Treasurer Robert Casey. Such a choice alienates women voters, she charged, and hurts Democrats in the Philadelphia suburbs. That populous part of the state, made up of moderate Republican swing voters who are pro-environment and pro-choice, has fueled every statewide victory Democrats have enjoyed in recent years. It also helped ensure the success of Growing Greener.
"I'm worried the anti-Santorum people are making the same mistake the anti-Bush forces made: counting on the anybody-but-Bush vote," Clark says today. "That doesn't work. You have to give people somebody they feel good about voting for."
In other words, putting a popular Democrat-inspired referendum on the ballot could help a candidate -- if it promises a tangible benefit to voters and if the candidate acts like he's voting for it too. If they hope to beat Santorum or anyone else, Dems need to stop acting like they oppose their own ideals. Because right now, it looks like they're the only ones who do.