Will War and Economy Eclipse Cultural Issues? Kerry Better Hope So

Posted February 11, 2004 at 2:49pm

While Democrats believe that the combination of a net job loss and Sen. John Kerry’s (Mass.) military record will neutralize long-term GOP advantages on the economy and foreign policy, they haven’t made any effort to address the party’s vulnerability on so-called cultural issues. [IMGCAP(1)]

In fact, by nominating Kerry, the Democrats have likely ensured that those cultural issues will play to the favor of Republicans. That’s a problem, because the nation’s cultural divide is no less dramatic than the nation’s racial divide.

While many cultural conservatives already are reliable Republican voters, cultural issues could change the election in two ways. First, they might turn out some (relatively few) voters who sat out the 2000 elections. Second, and more importantly, those issues could draw to the GOP some social moderates, including seniors, who otherwise might prefer a Democrat.

If you look at a map, it isn’t hard to see the Democrats’ problems. The Democrats have been running best along the two coasts, where cultural liberalism prevails. Whether it’s guns, abortion, gay rights or religion, voters living along the East Coast from Massachusetts to Maryland, and along the Pacific Coast have generally preferred liberals’ values and the Democrats’ agenda.

But elsewhere, where social liberalism has not been embraced, national Democratic candidates have suffered.

Bill Clinton is a social liberal, but when he first ran for the White House, he often talked about “values” (school uniforms, religion and even welfare reform). And he was a candidate from the South, with its conservative cultural traditions.

Democrats hope that Kerry’s personal story — including his bravery in Vietnam — will somehow inoculate him on “values.” But that may not work.

Almost four years ago, Republican George W. Bush won West Virginia, something only two other GOP presidential candidates, Ronald Reagan (in 1984) and Richard Nixon (in 1972), have done in the past 40 years.

Bush didn’t carry West Virginia because of his tax policy or his national security credentials. He won it because of guns, religion and the environment (which is partially a jobs issue in the state), issues he can also use against Kerry.

Kerry’s cultural problems are equally significant in Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, the Farm Belt, the Mountain states and the South.

Cultural issues, of course, might not be as important if other topics — such as jobs and the war in Iraq — eclipse them. It is true that in severe economic times, voters will be concerned primarily with jobs or inflation or interest rates, not cultural issues. And wars can overshadow other issues. But it isn’t clear how the economy and Iraq will play in November, or that the nation’s serious cultural divide can be ignored.

If you live in southern Ohio, suburban Wisconsin or rural Tennessee and are raising a family, are you more worried about the loss of manufacturing jobs or how the national culture is affecting your children and your ability to pass along your own values? The answer isn’t all that obvious.

“Cultural issues complicate Democrats’ ability to get a fair hearing with some voters. It doesn’t shut the door, but it creates an obstacle,” one Democratic consultant told me.

To some, cultural concerns are the realm of religious right extremists or provincial prudes. But that caricature isn’t entirely accurate.

In fact, one GOP consultant insisted that the Bush campaign needs to paint Kerry as a cultural liberal not to please social conservatives, who are already in the president’s hip pocket, but to make the Democrat “unacceptable to middle-of-the-road voters.”

Seniors, a key swing constituency, could be at the heart of any GOP cultural strategy. While many seniors seem dissatisfied with the administration’s health care and prescription drug plan, they are likely to side with the president’s cultural values.

And where are seniors particularly important? How about states such as Florida, Arizona, Arkansas, Iowa and Pennsylvania, states with older populations and retirees — states critical to the outcome in November.

Gay marriage is likely to become an incendiary political issue during the next nine months, as a Constitutional amendment is discussed and states across the country wrestle with how to deal with the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage.

An early January CNN/USA Today/Gallup survey found 44 percent of those polled saying they strongly oppose “a law that would allow homosexual couples to legally get married,” while only 16 percent strongly support it. A recent Time/CNN poll found 62 percent of respondents said homosexual marriages should not be recognized as law.

While Kerry says he opposes gay marriage, he hasn’t taken a position on a constitutional amendment to define marriage in traditional terms.

Kerry could try to neutralize the issue by coming out for a constitutional amendment that defines marriage in traditional terms. Doing that before a gay group would be his “Sista Souljah” moment, similar to Bill Clinton’s 1992 criticism of the lyrics of an African- American rapper to a black audience. But is Kerry prepared to do that?

For Republicans, a cultural counteroffensive could pose risks if the party or Bush were to look intolerant and narrow-minded. But that’s a risk the White House might take to put Kerry and his party in a political bind on cultural issues.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.