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October 31, 2006 - New York Times (NY)

Column: The Immoral Majority

By John Tierney

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As usual, Republicans are hoping that righteous voters will come through for them on Election Day. But this year looks like the revenge of the sinners.

The sinners aren't easy to count, since they don't spend a lot of time doing grass-roots politicking. There is no Washington lobby for the Coalition of the Damned. They don't like to confess their urges to pollsters. But there are enough of them, particularly in places where Republicans are struggling, to cast doubt on the party's long-standing strategy.

Why did Republicans assume there was a Moral Majority? Where in the Bible does it say that the virtuous outnumber the wicked? When you define wickedness the way Republicans do, the numbers are daunting.

One of the G.O.P. Congress's few achievements this year was a law to crack down on Internet gambling, an industry that counted eight million American customers last year -- about four times the membership of the Christian Coalition. The new law hasn't stopped the online gamblers from betting, but it will give them second thoughts about voting Republican.

The Republican war on marijuana -- the chief priority of the current drug czar -- isn't playing any better in the heartland. More than 40 percent of people over the age of 12 have tried marijuana, and more than three-quarters of Americans support legalizing it for medical purposes. The White House and the Justice Department have had little luck in their attempts to stop states from legalizing medical marijuana, but they have succeeded in alienating voters.

These federal intrusions are especially scorned by independent voters in the Western states where Republicans have been losing ground, like Colorado, Nevada, Arizona and Montana. Western Democrats have been siphoning off libertarian voters by moderating their liberal views on issues like gun control, but Republicans have been driving libertarians away with their wars on vice and their jeremiads against gay marriage (and their attempt to regulate that from Washington, too).

Libertarian voters tend to get ignored by political strategists because they're not easy to categorize or organize. They don't congregate in churches or union halls; they don't unite to push political agendas. Many don't even call themselves libertarians, although they qualify because of their social liberalism and economic conservatism: they want the government out of their bedrooms as well as their wallets.

They distrust moral busybodies of both parties, and they may well be the most important bloc of swing voters this election, as David Boaz and David Kirby conclude in a new study for the Cato Institute. Analyzing a variety of voter surveys, they estimate that libertarians make up about 15 percent of voters -- a bloc roughly comparable in size to liberals and to conservative Christians, and far bigger than blocs like Nascar dads or soccer moms.

They're especially prevalent in the West, where half a dozen states have legalized medical marijuana. When Californians approved one of the first medical marijuana laws, in 1996, drug warriors were so convinced it would lead to a catastrophic spike in illegal use by teenagers that they sponsored a study to document the damage. But there was no catastrophe: after the law, marijuana use by teenagers actually declined in California.

In the decade since, as the Marijuana Policy Project documented in a recent study, popular support for legalized medical marijuana has increased in California and in virtually every other state with a similar law. Last year it was favored by 78 percent of respondents in a Gallup poll.

Yet these realities still haven't registered with Republicans in Washington. This year the White House drug czar, John Walters, and his minions have been out campaigning in Nevada, Colorado and South Dakota, which have marijuana initiatives on the ballot. The drug warriors are still sounding the discredited alarms about youths turning into potheads. Their fervor's not surprising -- they may even believe their own hype.

What's surprising is the political stupidity of the meddling. Westerners, no matter what they think of marijuana, don't appreciate sermons from federal officials on how to vote. In 2002, when the White House campaigned against another marijuana ballot initiative in Nevada, the state's attorney general said it was "disturbing" to see the federal interference in a state election.

This year, with Republicans in so much trouble in the West, the missionaries from Washington aren't doing them any favors. They need every sinner's vote they can get.

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