ST. PAUL, Minn. — The culture wars are making a sudden and unexpected encore in American politics, turning more ferocious virtually by the hour as activists on both sides of the ideological divide react to the addition of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to the Republican ticket
The campaign of Democrat Barack Obama put up an ad in at least nine key states Tuesday lambasting GOP nominee-to-be John McCain as an enemy of abortion rights.
At the Republican convention here, former Tenn. Sen. Fred Thompson was preparing to take a shot at Obama’s stand in favor of legal abortion.
In his prepared remarks, Thompson made this case: “We need a president who doesn’t think that the protection of the unborn or a newly born baby is above his pay grade.”
That reference, perhaps obscure to most Americans, will be instantly recognizable to social conservatives. At the recent Saddleback Church presidential forum, Obama told pastor Rick Warren that the question of when life begins is “above my pay grade.” And the phrase “newly born” refers to Obama’s opposition — on technical grounds rather than the merits, he said — of a “Born Alive Act” while in the Illinois legislature.
The selection of Palin — a new heroine of social conservatives — has helped reignite not only abortion but also other flash-point issues in a way few of McCain’s other vice presidential options would have done.
Conservatives see her as a kindred spirit who lives her anti-abortion words in the most profound way: by giving birth to a child she knew would be born with Down syndrome. Gun owners see her as authentically one of them: a hunter with a passion for the outdoors and gun freedom.
Social liberals agree — and are proving just as ready for combat on issues that many operatives and analysts believed would have less relevance in an Obama-McCain campaign. Both nominees have said they want to transcend the remorseless ideological and cultural conflicts which shaped so much of politics in both the Clinton and Bush presidencies.
“The choice of Palin is going to bring some of these issues, like abortion, same sex issues, the teaching of evolution in public schools, the whole role of what religion plays in public life, back to the campaign,” said Rob Boston, a senior analyst for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. “Culture war issues reflect a real divide that is evident in society today.”
Until last week’s Palin pick, many of these issues seemed to be receding. The National Review last year published an article titled “A Farewell to Culture Wars.”
No official cease-fire had been called, of course. But McCain and Barack Obama were not inclined to make this campaign a big fight over family values issues — for different reasons.
McCain is a social conservative but clearly uncomfortable talking about his personal faith and personal issues, such as gay marriage. His comfort zone is talking about national security and the federal budget. Obama is a social liberal who has little interest in making this campaign about anything other than the economy, the war and the need to shake up Washington.
“Something happens in the political realm that tends to trigger the culture wars re-emergence. So it’s always below the surface,” said James Davidson Hunter, a 1990nineties.
“McCain’s choice of a social conservative and now the revelation that her 17-year-old daughter is pregnant out of wedlock has triggered the issue back up to the surface,” Hunter added.
Conservative evangelical Christians, the GOP’s foot soldiers in these fights, are delighted by the emergence of a new leader who seems so genuinely in sync with them on abortion (opposed) creationism (believes it should be taught in public schools) and other topics.
&dquo;Palin signals that the McCain campaign figured out that reports of the death of the pro-life movement, and the influence of evangelical voters, is wildly exaggerated,” conservative evangelical leader Richard Land said, who said he was “ecstatic” over the selection of Palin.
To be sure, cultural issues would be a factor in this election, even if McCain had sought to defuse them. Social issues dominate the 112 ballot propositions in 30 states in November, according to the Initiative & Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California.
California, Arizona and Florida voters are considering constitutional amendments banning gay marriage. Colorado, and likely Arizona and Nebraska, will have ballot measures to ban affirmative action. South Dakota and Colorado also have ballot initiatives that would effectively ban abortion.
But the surprise emergence of Palin on the national stage has given a human face on these debates and has guaranteed that they would dominate the conversation here at the Republican convention and in the news media.
“There hasn’t been a lot of discussion of some of these, if you will, culture war issues like abortion and gay marriage and that has now come to the fore again,” said Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women.
Democrats, especially on blogs and in private conversations, have savaged Palin for the news that her 17-year-old, unwed daughter Bristol is pregnant and plans to marry the father. Liberal radio host Ed Schultz, who had already used the words “bimbo alert” to refer to Palin, suggested that she was a hypocrite for having a pregnant child while touting a social conservative platform.
But rather than drawing the ire of conservatives who disapprove of pre-marital sex, the news about Bristol Palin has buoyed many spirits, because she chose not to terminate the pregnancy and plans to marry the father.
“Why does the left think there is a pro-life movement? The pro-life movement is about helping women who get into trouble,” said Gary Bauer, president of the social conservative group American Values.
“The whole discussion up until now has been about national security and the economy and now we see the culture wars back with her appointment,” said Michael Cromartie, director of the evangelical studies program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. “It has re-emerged because of the circumstances of her fifth child and her daughter.”
Republican strategists believe these wars are being fought on favorable terrain for McCain.
The annual Pew Religion and Public Life Survey recently reported that after voters gauged how liberal McCain and Obama were, “the average voter places themselves much closer to McCain than to Obama.”
Forty-nine percent of Americans say their “moral values” are conservative, while only 20 percent say they are liberal. About half of voters, when asked to assess the moral values of the candidates, described Obama as liberal while nearly six in 10 said McCain was conservative.
Given the intensity of Palin support among conservatives, McCain may very well end up with greater flexibility than ever to make his own direct appeal to independent voters. Palin can keep social activists at ease — and excited — while McCain seeks to reclaim his maverick image with a more direct appeal to those Hillary Clinton supporters and undecided swing voters.
“In the last 72 hours, the focus [of social conservatives] has sharpened not only because of Palin’s selection but the instinctive reaction of the left to her, that ‘she is small town, what does she know; she’s religious right, she’s an extremist,'” said Bauer. “They are eliminating any chance they had to switch some of these” traditionally Republican states to the Democrats.