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In Virginia, Culture War Looks Very Much Alive on One Side

Somebody needs to tell Virginia gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds that the “culture wars” are over. Apparently, he didn’t get the memo.

Deeds is banking on completing his comeback in this year’s Virginia gubernatorial race by portraying Republican nominee Bob McDonnell, the commonwealth’s former attorney general, as a Neanderthal who opposes abortion, birth control and women in the workplace.

If that isn’t a “cultural” argument, I don’t know what is.

And yet, it was just two months ago that Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the left- leaning Center for American Progress, assured us in an article, “The Coming End of the Culture Wars,” that “culture wars, far from coming back, are likely coming to an end as a defining aspect of our politics.”

And it was less than six months before that Peter Beinart, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, assured us in his Daily Beast post, “The End of the Culture Wars,” that President Barack Obama “wants to remove culture from the public debate.”

The president, wrote Beinart, thinks many conservative white Protestants and Catholics “will look beyond culture when they enter the voting booth as long as he and other Democrats don’t ram cultural liberalism down their throats.”

And 18 months ago, in March 2008, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. wrote that the questions that “will most engage us will be about survival and prosperity, not religion and culture.”

Teixeira, Beinart and Dionne aren’t completely wrong, of course. The economy has pushed cultural issues to the back burner, and while Obama holds predictably liberal views on abortion and gay marriage (as evidenced by the president’s recent statement that the Defense of Marriage Act is “discriminatory” and “should be repealed”), he has not lectured the country about them.

Deeds, on the other hand, is using cultural issues as his ultimate wedge in Northern Virginia, and as we have seen recently, the White House (not to mention Democratic National Committee Chairman and Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine) is very much supportive of Deeds’ candidacy.

As reporters Anita Kumar and Jon Cohen wrote in the Washington Post on Sunday, “Deeds has made McDonnell’s 20-year-old thesis and his views on women centerpieces of his campaign, particularly in the more liberal, vote-rich northern part of the state.”

Deeds is now airing two different TV spots on cultural issues, citing McDonnell’s alleged positions against abortion, birth control “even for married couples” and working women.

This emphasis is interesting, considering that the top concern of voters is not cultural issues but the economy, at least according to the Post’s own poll, which showed that issue (the economy/jobs/unemployment) far ahead of other issues in the minds of voters.

After that, voters were most concerned about a quartet of issues: education, health care, taxes and transportation.

The same poll showed voters trusting McDonnell more than Deeds on the economy and jobs (48 percent to 43 percent), taxes (50 percent to 39 percent) and transportation (46 percent to 38 percent), while they trusted Deeds on health care (47 percent to 43 percent).

Yet Deeds continues to pound away, at least in Northern Virginia, on culture, and he is doing so for one reason and only one reason: He figures that it is good politics.

Deeds has been underperforming in crucial Northern Virginia, and his campaign wisely decided that hitting McDonnell on abortion and other cultural issues will peel off suburban moderate voters not enamored of Deeds’ rural roots from the Republican and motivate them to turn out in November for the Democratic ticket.

So far, few commentators have remarked about Deeds’ strategy given the top issues of the day. You can be sure that if it were McDonnell, not Deeds, who was bringing up abortion and other cultural issues, he’d be criticized for being divisive and for focusing on allegedly tangential matters at a time of economic distress.

Indeed, that was the message in a Nov. 10, 2005, E.J. Dionne Jr. column written shortly after Kaine’s election as governor. Dionne wrote that a “jovial” then-Gov. Mark Warner (D) talked about the “failure” of the GOP’s gubernatorial campaign, and its focus on hot-button social issues, and Warner stressed that voters preferred candidates who dealt with questions that governors “actually spend 98 percent of their time working on,” such as the budget, health care, education, transportation and job growth.

Instead, the Washington Post cheered Deeds on in a mid-August editorial for talking about abortion and called the McDonnell campaign “disingenuous and wrong” for complaining that Deeds’ attacks were divisive.

And oddly, no one has mentioned that Deeds, who ran as a moderate in the primary, is now relying on a pro-abortion-rights message usually employed by liberal Democrats in general elections.

“I think somebody like me, from my part of the state, can bring people together, can create consensus,” Deeds says in a new TV spot that is running at the same time that he is attacking his opponent in the two abortion/birth control ads.

It’s too soon to say whether Deeds’ strategy will work. Democratic conventional wisdom over the past few years says it won’t, and if Mark Warner was correct back in 2005, Deeds is toast. But, in any case, reports of the death of cultural issues have been greatly exaggerated.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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