Let's say you're the key operatives and media strategists behind the party out of power. Let's say that your party's nominee challenging the Senate Majority Leader hates black football jerseys because they're the tool of Satan. And let's say that another of your Senate candidates wants to do away with the Americans with Disabilities Act, or kidnapped a girl in college to go take some bong hits. And let's say that your semi-official slogan is the "Party of No" because you've been obstructing every single badly-needed piece of reform that the majority party has been trying to institute since the beginning of the term. And for some reason, you still have the momentum entering the November election. Under these circumstances, it would stand to reason that your official propaganda arm would do anything to change the subject. And so it has: by focusing on the one subject that no Senator, Governor and Congressman can do a thing about.
It should come as no surprise that as the November election draws closer, the conservative movement would choose to stop focusing on things that legislators are responsible for (such as what sort of legislation to pass--and focus instead on something they have no control over (such as where a private entity builds a community center and house of worship). Democrats may be unpopular right now, but Republicans are just as unpopular. Meanwhile, the last thing conservatives want is to have a fight about actual legislation; they tried running briefly on the idea of repealing health care reform, but that fizzled. They certainly can't run on opposition to Wall Street reform, or the Lily Ledbetter Act, any other of the good pieces of legislation passed by the Democratic Congress and signed by President Obama.
But fortunately for them, they don't have to. This may seem as surprising: after all, elections are supposed to be about giving the voters an opportunity to decide which candidate is going to enact policy that would be more aligned with their interests. If only. This topic is explored in depth in Drew Westen's seminal work, The Political Brain. In one sentence, the book's upshot is this: Democrats spend all of their time trying to appeal to the rational brains of voters through facts, figures and laundry lists of legislative accomplishments, while Republicans focus on more emotional topics, such as narratives and values. And guess which side of the brain is stronger?
If voters were completely logical and practical, it would make no sense whatsoever for an entire movement to all of a sudden focus on an issue over which its candidates have no control. Even if the Republicans retook the House and the Senate, there would be nothing they could do to prevent Imam Rauf from developing Park 51 at its currently intended. location if he managed to raise the funds and get his team in place. But as Westen has conclusively demonstrated, that's not how voters make their judgments.
From an emotional point of view, people are uncomfortable with Park 51, regardless of where they stand on the more practical, legal issue of whether the government ought to ban it. And when conservatives express their own animosity toward the project, they are expressing an emotional shared value with voters. And during a time when voters seem fed up with both parties in terms of actually getting anything done, this source of emotional connection could end up just as strong a driver as any agreement with a checklist of stated platform positions: after all, if a candidate shares your basic fundamental values, you just might implicitly assume that they'll vote the right way on complicated legislative issues.
This issue puts Democrats on their heels: the typical Democratic response citing the First Amendment guarantees of free exercise of religion is a statement simply on whether or not Park 51 has a right to be built, but it doesn't address the issue of how the Democratic candidate actually feels about the issue--the emotional, hazy question of "should" or "shouldn't." Actually answering that question forces Democrats to either go outside the majority of American sentiment, or seem like they're making a much-delayed attempt at latching onto the majority opinion in a desperate attempt to save face. Neither of these options is acceptable.
This sticky political situation is fraught with danger, but there is opportunity in it as well. The Republicans are trying to go back to the playbook from 2004 and 2006 and use the Park 51 project as a referendum for exploring how concerned Democrats are about "national security" and "protecting America"--and the debate is playing out along similar lines to the old debates about FISA legislation, domestic spying, and our rights under the Fourth Amendment.
As thereisnospoon pointed out to me recently, though, Democrats have an opportunity to use their support for Park 51 to reinforce their existing narrative about supporting the little guy. Democrats support the right of middle-class moderate Muslims to worship in peace for the same reasons that we support extending unemployment insurance for those hard-hit in these economic times. For the same reasons that we support the right of the LGBT community to get married. Because even when it's slightly unpopular, our fundamental values is to stand up for people's basic fundamental rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Meanwhile, the Republicans are hating on hardworking immigrants who likely escaped oppression in their home countries to come here in search of a better life, all while doing their absolute best to protect the bankers on Wall Street who nearly wrecked the world just four blocks away.
That's what the Democratic Party is about. And we shouldn't hesitate to include Park 51 proudly into our narrative, rather than trying to defend it from theirs.