A truce in culture wars as voters focus on economy

Back in June, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, whom many think would be an attractive 2012 presidential candidate, was quoted by Andrew Ferguson in the Weekly Standard for saying the next president “would have to call a truce on the so-called social issues.” That quickly attracted some harsh criticism from opponents of abortion and same-sex marriage. But Daniels has declined to back down, telling the Indianapolis Star the other day that such issues are secondary to the economy and foreign policy.

I think both Daniels and his critics have missed the point. The fact is that there is an ongoing truce on the social issues, because for most Americans they have been overshadowed by concerns raised by the weak economy and the Obama Democrats' vast increase in the size and scope of government.

Those with strong positions on both sides of the abortion and gay rights issues don't like to hear that. They — on both sides — base their views on strongly held moral beliefs that are intellectually defensible and not vicious in character.

And for more than a decade they had gotten used to a politics in which the demographic variable most highly correlated with voting behavior was religion, or degree of religiosity, and in which positions on abortion were very highly correlated with partisan preference.

Our politics in the years from 1995 to 2005 or so was like a culture war between two approximately equal-sized armies fighting it out over small bits of terrain that made the difference between victory and defeat. In that context, abortion and other cultural issues were litmus tests in the contests for both parties' presidential nominations.

I don't think that's likely to be the case in the future. You don't hear potential contenders for the 2012 Republican nomination talking about cultural issues very much. And the intramural arguments among Democrats are over things like tax cuts for the rich and the public option in the health care bill.

Even as economics is overshadowing all else, we seem to have reached a truce in the culture wars because important issues have been settled as a practical matter.

Abortion remains controversial. But we are not going to see abortion criminalized, not in a country where the Supreme Court has been ruling for 37 years that it's a right.

At the same time, we are seeing abortion disfavored and restricted by state laws that are widely popular and have at least in some cases been upheld by the courts. Polls show that young voters, liberal on most cultural issues, have slightly more negative views on abortion than their elders.

On gay rights we also see something in the nature of a truce. Polls suggest majority support for Congress's repeal of the ban on open gays in the military, and the Marine Corps commandant, who opposed the change, promised to work hard to implement it.

Same-sex marriage is accepted in Massachusetts and nearly gained majority support in referenda in Maine and California. But many states have passed constitutional amendments banning it. It is unlikely to pass muster with voters or legislators in most of the South anytime soon, if only because most black voters are opposed (blacks voted 70 percent against it in California).

There's a sharp difference between old and young voters on same-sex marriage, and my guess is that young voters will continue to favor it by wide margins as they grow older; but maybe not. In the meantime, discrimination against or disparagement of gays and lesbians is increasingly frowned on by larger and larger majorities.

American history is a long chronicle of, among other things, people with different views on religious and cultural issues living in more or less close and amicable proximity with one another. Sometimes that's hard, when government faces binary issues (should abortion be legal?) that must be decided one way or the other.

But on the cultural issues that have been the focus of political contention we seem to have reached a status quo that, while not acceptable to some with strong views on both sides, is one most Americans can live with. The truce that Mitch Daniels called for and that his critics decry is a fact of life.

Michael Barone,The Examiner's senior political analyst, can be contacted at mbarone@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears Wednesday and Sunday, and his stories and blog posts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.

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