Spirits were subdued a year ago at the Values Voters Summit, an annual gathering of religious conservatives in Washington. Those soldiers in the culture wars over abortion, same-sex marriage and religion in the public square met amid obituaries for their movement's influence.
What a difference a year makes -- or so the religious right would have us believe.
Last year, Sen. John McCain finished last in a Republican presidential poll held in conjunction with the summit. This year's summiteers were newly enthusiastic about McCain because of his selection of their kindred spirit, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, as his running mate. Some of the faithful hope that the 2008 election will be a referendum on "values" -- as defined by them.
We hope they're wrong. A raft of issues will confront the next president: the faltering economy, Iraq, Afghanistan, the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea, a resurgent Russia, gaps in health insurance, energy policy and climate change. Especially after this week's turmoil in the financial markets, it's bizarre to suggest that this election should turn on abortion, same-sex marriage or the relationship between church and state. Though these remain important issues, the electorate would be the loser if they play as significant a role this year as they have in recent presidential races.
For one thing, McCain and Barack Obama are closer to one another on social issues than many believe. Both oppose same-sex marriage (though Obama has come out against Proposition 8, which would forbid it in California). Both also oppose an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would limit marriage to a pact between men and women only. The significant difference concerns abortion. McCain likely would appoint Supreme Court justices who would rein in, or even reverse, Roe vs. Wade. Obama would do the opposite.
The abortion issue isn't just overshadowed by more important ones, it could be a risky focus for McCain. If a poll released this week ~newsctr/battlegroundsept2008/Battleground-36-questionnaire.pdf is correct, the economy looms largest in voters' concerns, followed by terrorism, gasoline prices, healthcare costs and retirement security. To the extent that abortion is a voting issue, McCain could hurt his prospects by flaunting his pro-life position because many of the centrist women whose votes he covets are pro-choice. True, McCain energized "values voters" with his selection of Palin, who opposes abortion even in cases of rape or incest. But Palin's broader appeal seems to be based on her gender and her image as an opponent of pork-barrel spending.
Decades of arguing about abortion, an issue that turns on matters of personal faith, have produced only tiny shifts in policy. Can we talk about something else this time?