For the past 25 years, the GOP has very successfully defined the value set of the two major parties. They have styled themselves the party of "freedom"--the freedom from the oppressive horrors of taxes, government, and cultural elitism. Freedom, being the nation's ur-emotion, strikes a strongly populist note, which the GOP have successfully fostered. You just want to drive your SUV and watch NASCAR and tell off-color jokes. The nannies of the Democratic Party prevent these red-blooded activities in their elitist way. If only they'd settle down and drink a beer with the rest of us.
Of course, the GOP has also seized morality: family values, God, patriotism. In the face of secular baby-killers, Hollyweird, and anti-troop longhairs, the GOP is the last stop before the apocalypse. For more than a generation, the intersection between "politics" and "moral" has been the Republican Party.
(To be fair, Dems likewise were the moral party at mid-century, when the GOP were seen as cigar-chomping industrialists who wanted to crush workers. They used their power to continue to foster that image, just as the GOP do today.)
Democrats, or if you prefer nonpartisan language, liberals, are today mainly understood through the lens of the Republican spin. They are the cultural elites, "limosine liberals" who hate the common man. They are the defenders of government, not the people. They are weak in the face of threats. They are financially irresponsible and anti-business, and they favor nothing so much as a government boondoggle funded by your tax dollars. They are godless and amoral and anti-family. In their pursuit of "diversity," they show that they have no real beliefs.
The Democratic Party has abetted this conventional wisdom by either agreeing with it on the one hand ("the era of big government is over"), or playing into the stereotypes (Kerry's emabarrassing goose hunt, for example). And, over the course of the past generation (I'm dating it from Reagan's election, but you could go back further, to '73--Roe--or even '68, when Nixon was elected), liberals and Democrats saw an erosion of their own understanding of values. Clinton, who was such a friend of corporate America, hastened this confusion. Old populists like William Jennings Bryan must have been spinning in their graves to see Clinton approve mergers of industrial giants while ending welfare protections for the poor.
From the middle 80s, as they tried to understand and react to the Reagan revolution, to the election of Bush in 2000, Dems thought they could cleave a "third way," marrying a pro-business stance with good social policies. The result was that Dems looked outwardly duplicitous--conservative wannabes--and inwardly, began to drift away from what their own values were.
In some ways, the winds of Hurricane Katrina have blown away the old definitions created by GOP spinmeisters. The GOP is no more the party of small government than it is the party of the working class. Dems found that their association with government wasn't looking too bad, and everyone was reminded again that the Republicans, no matter how thick their good-'ol-boy drawls, don't give a damn about the poor.
So it's a good opportunity to revisit Democratic values. Are we the party of the people, or the party of the jet-set? Are we Wilsonian anti-war globalists or FDR ass-kickers? Can we be pro-business and pro-labor, or do we have to choose? Are we the party of the cities? Where does God fit in?
Over the next few days (probably weeks), I'll try to offer my thoughts on the subject. With any luck, I'll get some other bloggers discussing it, too. And of course, for the handful of folks who have found this site (many of whom I exhort to visit personally), I hope you pile on, too.