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Campaign ’04: How The Wedge Issues Cut

10 minute read
John Cloud

In the summer of 1988, Vice President George H. W. Bush was foundering. His opponent in the presidential race, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, was doing well in the polls. That fall, however, pro-Bush forces deftly used wedge issues–particularly crime and the specter of encroaching liberalism–to cleave white working-class voters from the Democratic Party. The nastiest and most effective ’88 political ad featured the hardened visage of convict William Horton, a murderer who had fled Massachusetts during a prison furlough and then stabbed a man and raped his fiancé. Republicans said Dukakis had turned his state’s prison gates into “a revolving door.” Dukakis pointed out that he had actually ended the furlough program, but his protest was late and languid. Bush won comfortably, 54% to 46%.

At the start of the 2004 campaign, it seemed that Bush the son would also use wedge issues to repel a Massachusetts rival. Earlier this year, just as John Kerry was celebrating primary victories, the top court in his home state affirmed a decision unpopular in most of the U.S. that legalized marriage for same-sex couples. The court ordered the state to begin issuing marriage licenses to gays by mid-May. Social conservatives despaired at the ruling, but Republicans savored the idea that, all summer, newspapers would run pictures of men kissing each other on Cape Cod. It would help frame Kerry as a liberal.

Eager to energize evangelical Christians–4 million of whom White House adviser Karl Rove believes stayed home on Election Day 2000–George W. Bush said he would work to pass a U.S. constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. But as the race got under way, the Bush campaign had to decide whether to portray Kerry as a committed lefty or a squishy flip-flopper. Though both caricatures were used, the G.O.P. campaign focused far more on the question of whether Kerry could provide steady leadership in uncertain times. Saying that Kerry takes multiple positions has now made it harder to claim he’s on the wrong side of wedge issues.

Voters are not convinced that he is on the wrong side. A new TIME poll, conducted after last week’s third presidential debate (see chart, pages 36-37), suggests that wedge issues, which normally work to the Republicans’ advantage, are not a big G.O.P. plus this time. Asked whom they trust to handle “moral-values issues such as gay marriage and abortion,” more voters chose Bush (44%) than Kerry (42%), though the difference was within the margin for error. In early September the numbers were 51% to 37% in Bush’s favor.

As we saw in the last debate, in Tempe, Ariz., Bush is fighting to reclaim the wedge. He called Kerry “a liberal Senator from Massachusetts” and conjured liberalism incarnate, senior Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy, three times. Bush brought up his own support for the anti–gay-marriage amendment and used the word marriage 11 times. He called “partial-birth” abortion “a brutal practice.” For his part, Kerry turned in the most overtly religious presidential-debate performance–for either a Democrat or Republican–in memory. Although only a few months ago he was reluctant to discuss his faith–it’s “personal” and “private,” Kerry told TIME in March–he invoked the Almighty no fewer than 10 times in Tempe. Kerry is clearly hoping his faith can caulk any fractures the Republicans try to create with wedge issues over the next two weeks.

To be sure, most voters won’t decide their vote based on social issues. According to the TIME poll, only 12% say values issues are paramount in this election. Even Bush-Cheney strategist Ralph Reed, who witnessed the potency of values politics as head of the Christian Coalition in the 1990s, says that this year “the overwhelming majority of voters are going to vote on jobs, the economy, Iraq, terrorism and health care.”

But as the race nears its end, you can expect both sides to try to hack away wedges–or at least slivers–of voters with appeals to religion and morality. It is already happening. Desperately contested Ohio is one of 11 states that will decide on Nov. 2 whether to amend their constitution to ban gay marriage. Phil Burress of the Ohio Campaign to Protect Marriage, which favors that state’s proposed amendment, is preparing to mail 2.5 million bulletin inserts to some 17,000 Ohio churches. His group has already submitted nearly 55,000 voter-registration cards. “The church will show up on Nov. 2,” he says, and although his effort to ban gay marriage long precedes the Bush re-election effort, Burress knows that his new registrants will disproportionately support the President.

On Saturday, Bush himself devoted part of his radio address to wedge issues, smacking Kerry for voting against bills proscribing partial-birth abortion and against the Defense of Marriage Act, which banned federal recognition of same-sex marriages but otherwise left the matter to the states. Kerry says he voted against the abortion bills because they didn’t contain sufficient protections for a mother’s health. He now agrees with the marriage act’s provisions, but he has said he voted against it because he didn’t want to support “gay bashing.”

Unlike Dukakis in 1988, who seemed uncertain about how to respond when he was called a liberal, Kerry and running mate John Edwards have shown unexpected nerve on social issues. When Kerry and Bush were asked during the debate whether homosexuality is a choice, the President said he didn’t know. Kerry was clear. “It’s not a choice,” he said. Kerry then made a case against discrimination against gays in the workplace, but the blogging class paid most attention to his mention of the Cheneys’ lesbian daughter (see box, page 38).

Pro-Kerry troops are trying to mobilize their own social-issues voters. Many lesbians and gays–including gay friends of the President–felt deeply betrayed when Bush announced support for the anti–gay-marriage amendment. Recently Bill Jacobs, the gay-outreach coordinator for the Kerry campaign in Nevada, took volunteers into a section of Las Vegas known for its gay bars. They were able to register 200 people in just a few nights. “Don’t do it for Kerry; do it for the community,” Jacobs kept saying.

One of the ironies of the 2004 campaign is that although wedge issues won’t determine the outcome of a race dominated by national security and the economy, the victor can have a more direct impact on certain social issues than on intractable problems like unemployment. Bush and Kerry have similar plans for Iraq. Presidents can do little to directly improve the economy, and their powers to disband terrorist networks are limited. But if Kerry wins, he could change the landscape of values politics in the short term and–assuming the next President will nominate at least one Supreme Court Justice–well into the future. Liberalism will begin to rise from its post-9/11 crouch. If Bush is re-elected, social conservatives will start to consolidate their big advances. The battle will be fought on at least four fronts:

The Supreme Court Only one Supreme Court Justice–Clarence Thomas–is under 65. Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who has had health problems, is 80. If Bush is re-elected, the conservative Rehnquist may feel better about leaving. Sandra Day O’Connor, 74, might also go. John Paul Stevens, 84, the most left-leaning Justice, may finally find a nice porch if Kerry wins. When asked during the second debate to name potential court nominees, neither candidate would. But Bush has said he admires Thomas and Antonin Scalia, who form the hard nub at the right edge of American jurisprudence. Kerry has made clear that his nominees will favor abortion rights–which brings us to …

Abortion Currently the court has six Justices who support Roe v. Wade, but that number includes O’Connor and Stevens. Advocates of abortion rights say Bush’s re-election could mean Roe’s reversal and a return to a patchwork of state laws, some of which would probably ban the procedure. If Kerry is elected, his appointments would solidify Roe’s standing.

Stem cells This is a rare wedge issue for the Democrats. In August 2001 the President barred federal funding of research that would require the destruction of embryos to obtain their stem cells. Scientists believe stem cells can be used to grow healthy human tissue to replace tissue damaged by a variety of diseases, including Parkinson’s and Type 1 diabetes. Bush allowed work on already existing stem-cell lines, but scientists say those lines aren’t adequate to unlock the technology’s potential. If Bush is re-elected on Nov. 2, many U.S. stem-cell researchers will probably move overseas–or to California, where voters could pass Proposition 71 on the same day. Prop 71 would provide $3 billion in state funds to stem-cell research.

Many Catholics and social conservatives oppose the research because it means destroying embryos. But partly because of stem-cell advocacy by celebrities like Christopher Reeve, Michael J. Fox and Ron Reagan, fully half of voters now favor developing new cell lines. In the new TIME poll, 49% of voters say Kerry–who would quickly end Bush’s funding ban–is closer to their position on the issue; 34% say the President is closer to their view. “Stem cells are an issue that affects persuadable voters,” says senior Kerry adviser Tad Devine. Democrats are so giddy about that possibility that they can exaggerate the technology’s potential. After Reeve died last week, Edwards sounded like a faith healer when he claimed, “If we do … the work that we will do when John Kerry is President, people like Christopher Reeve will get up out of that wheelchair and walk again.” Scientists are actually years from the first human clinical trials using embryonic stem cells.

Gay marriage Kerry and Edwards like to brag that they have the same position on the issue as Bush–they oppose it. But unlike Bush, they think states should be free to define marriage. Hence a Kerry victory would probably doom the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment. The amendment was already a long shot. It failed a vote in the Republican-led House of Representatives last month, and the TIME poll found that 54% of voters oppose the amendment, up from 46% just last summer.

Kerry may still remain vulnerable to a wedge attack that can convince swing voters that he doesn’t share their values. But the TIME poll shows that voters now find themselves closer to Kerry on stem-cell research, abortion, gay rights and gun control. That means the Bush campaign may not have done enough to convince voters that Kerry is an out-of-touch lefty on those issues. Of course, if the Republicans can do so in the next two weeks, 2004 could still look like 1988 after all. –With reporting by Perry Bacon Jr., Eric Roston and Elaine Shannon/Washington; Fran Stewart/Cleveland; and Stacy J. Willis/Las Vegas



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