TODAY’S MUST-READS….Don’t really have much time these next few days, so I’ll just point you to some good commentary and we can return to the themes later in the week. First up is the always-worth-reading Mike Tomasky, who asks why the mainstream media seem not to have noticed that our president’s approval ratings are shockingly low–low, like Nixon in the midst of Watergate low, Hoover during the Depression low. He points out that the standard journalistic defense post 9/11 for kidglove coverage of the White House was that no one wanted to hear criticism of a popular president (nevermind that it’s a journalist’s job to report news, not just popular news.) What happens now, Tomasky wonders, with Bush’s numbers in the gutter? Will the defense now change to, you don’t kick a guy when he’s down? Stay tuned.

Also, don’t miss Dan Gerstein’s op-ed in today’s Wall St. Journal (if someone has a link that doesn’t require registration, could you please send it to me?) Here’s a taste:

The cultural elites are guilty of the very sin of silly oversimplification of which they frequently (and rightly) accuse conservatives. Not all parents who are concerned about the avalanche of crud crushing their children every day are obsessed with SpongeBob’s sexual orientation. Nor are they seeking to shred the First Amendment. Most are just looking for a little cooperation from the captains of culture to make the hard job of raising children in a fully-wired universe a little easier….

One can only imagine how insulting our elitism is to the average mother in the exurbs of Georgia or Colorado who might be uncomfortable with open talk of threesomes on “Friends” at 8p.m. Well, actually, we don’t have to imagine too hard, not after John Kerry openly embraced Hollywood and went on to lose married women voters by a margin of 55% to 44%….

But that is not a discussion the entertainment industry or its Democratic defenders want to have. In fact, most of the time they actively work to squelch it. Their first move usually is to deny that the culture has any influence on attitudes and behavior….Part of this response is clearly motivated by profit margins. But it also flows from a profound aversion to making moral judgments. And that’s the nub of the values problem for Democrats today. We don’t hesitate to judge people’s beliefs, but we blanch at judging their behavior. That leaves us silent on big moral issues at a time of great moral uncertainty, and leaves the impression that we are the party of “anything goes.”

These last few points are especially critical. In recent talks–including one this morning–I’ve been telling people that voters find it odd when Democrats bash big business and oil companies but turn a blind eye to the entertainment industry. Wouldn’t their Hollywood funders rebel if Democrats spoke up?, someone asked this morning. Frankly, it wouldn’t exactly hurt the party to have Susan Sarandon stand up and denounce the Democrats.

And this is related to Gerstein’s last point. The real concerns of Americans go much deeper than gay marriage or abortion–even if they have a hard time articulating them. Americans are very anxious about the idea that people will do whatever they can get away with, and their perception is that Democrats are the ones who let people get away with things. But Democrats can gain the advantage if they craft a consistent message. Some people certainly are opposed to abortion on principle; but many are simply offended by the idea that some people might rely on abortion as a means of birth control. But who else can you think of who has done something simply because they could get away with it? Do I hear, Ken Lay? Tom DeLay? All sorts of unregulated industries? Tie these into a consistent call for responsibility and Democrats have a better chance of claiming some moral ground.

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Amy Sullivan

Amy Sullivan is a Chicago-based journalist who has written about religion, politics, and culture as a senior editor for Time, National Journal, and Yahoo. She was an editor at the Washington Monthly from 2004 to 2006.