My fellow Democrats are at a strategic crossroads. As the loyal opposition, they have a duty to speak for those who have a different view from the Republicans – those people who don’t believe that the government can tax-cut its way to prosperity by larding out billion-dollar giveaways to corporate fat-cats, oil-drill its way to energy sufficiency in a country of two-mile-per-gallon SUVs or, regarding constitutional protections, burn the village in order to save it by military tribunals and ethnic round-ups. Like it or not, these are all legitimate issues, and the Democratic Party speaks for tens of millions of Americans when it raises them.

So far, Daschle has taken the high road. He and the Dems realize that the war against terrorism is not a liberal-conservative thing, it’s an American thing – a thing about national survival. But they also realize that Bush’s leadership against murderers masquerading as holy warriors does not give him a pass on everything. And Daschle has walked the path of the purest patriotism – supporting the president on matters of overwhelming national interest, and opposing Bush on issues where he really doesn’t speak for the whole country. For this, Daschle deserves and will receive the respect of all Americans and will be remembered by history as one of the great lights of the Senate.

That is, unless he and the Democratic Party screw things up.

A troubling report by Newsweek’s Howard Fineman suggests that the Democrats are about to take another path – the wrong one – by starting a campaign that essentially compares the religious right – Christian conservatives – with Afghanistan’s Taliban. Bottom line, the strategy is to compare the Taliban intolerance with the intolerance of the Christian right.

My plea to the Democrats: Please don’t do it.

Don’t get me wrong. I oppose the religious right on more issues than there are stars in the sky. I don’t agree with them about gay rights, choice, civil rights, corporate welfare, tax cuts, or affirmative action. I’m for them and they’re against them. And I also don’t agree with the religious right about prayer in schools, nativity scenes in city hall, or more guns. I ‘m against them and they’re for them. But this doesn’t mean that I have lost the ability to distinguish between true evil and somebody who simply disagrees with me. And I hope that the Democratic Party hasn’t lost this ability either.

There are two good reasons why the Democrats should not go down this road. The first and most important reason is that it’s the wrong thing to do. The Taliban were murderous, misogynistic fanatics of the most horrible stripe. They didn’t just oppose choice, they opposed women – shooting hundreds and adopting policies that reduced millions to beggary. The Taliban didn’t just oppose civil rights, they opposed every right, and invoked a reign of murder, pillage and rapine across Afghanistan that made the French Reign of Terror look like child’s play.

Bush is right on this one. They are genuinely evil. But the religious right are no more like the Taliban than I am. They are decent, genuinely sincere (if politically misguided) people who I’ve debated on television, in seminars and through the e-mail. We agree on nothing but this: We respect each other as decent people and as fellow Americans. Any campaign to compare them to the Taliban is as reprehensible as Joe McCarthy comparing liberals to Joe Stalin. It’s wrong, and I’m not afraid to say so.

But there is also a second reason for Daschle and the Democrats to rethink this one. It won’t work. In fact, it will boomerang in the worst way, and would be as colossal a mistake as the Republicans made when they supported Proposition 187 in California – and destroyed themselves with Hispanics for nearly a generation.

For starters, the American people know better, and it’s an insult to assume that they don’t. Everybody understands what the stakes have been in this war, and to cheapen the worthiest of human sentiments – tolerance – by suggesting that your political opponents are intolerant the way the Taliban were, is to risk a political disaster. Injecting religion into what should be a political debate actually makes the Democrats more like the Taliban than any Christian conservative. Such a policy would be divisive in the worst way.

Maybe it’ll earn the Democrats a few votes in a handful of zip codes around Berkeley and Cambridge, but it will cost them big-time in the states they need to ensure that the 2004 presidential election isn’t determined by nine judges in Washington. Ratner to Daschle: After a decade of “rip your lungs out” politics in Washington, you’ve led our party back to the politics of reason, civility and justice. Please, please, don’t fall off the wagon.

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