Abortion? Gay Marriage? So Much for 'Values Voters'

In recent presidential elections hot-button social issues like abortion and marriage played a prominent role. In 2000 the candidates hotly debated the impact of the next president's Supreme Court picks on abortion rights as pro-choice activists attempted to galvanize voters with the prospect that George W. Bush's election would result in limits on or even outlawing of abortion. In 2004 an Ohio state referendum on gay marriage helped turn out religious conservatives who may have put George W. Bush over the top in the decisive state. After the 2004 election, pundits and activists debated the role of "values" voters and Democrats committed to reaching out to these voters in the future.

But this year, the most remarkable thing about the two most prominent social issues --abortion and gay marriage-- is how little we have heard about them.

Candidates have made the briefest of forays into these issues. When a California Supreme Court ruling prompted an initiative to ban gay marriage, each candidate weighed in and then quickly moved on. Barack Obama departed from his previous opposition to gay marriage, criticized the initiative, and forcefully criticized proponents as "divisive." John McCain took the opportunity to weigh in against judicial activism and gave perfunctory support for the right of voters to decide these issues. And that was it.

On abortion, Obama momentarily tried to moderate his very emphatic pro-choice record --including opposition to a Supreme Court ruling upholding the partial birth abortion ban-- by telling a conservative Christian publication that the "mental distress" of the woman shouldn't justify late-term abortions. That set off a brief kerfuffle since it appeared to undercut the basis of Roe v. Wade. Obama tried to "clarify" and never mentioned it again. Abortion activists may quietly grumble that Obama has relegated discussion of abortion rights to the sidelines, but he shows no inclination to move it front and center.

This newfound aversion to discussing social issues is not surprising when one considers that both presidential candidates have much to lose and perhaps little to gain by wading into these issues. Some social conservatives criticize McCain for failing to talk about these issues, but to do so might further diminish his chances of capturing disaffected Hillary Clinton supporters. In any event, religious conservatives seem to have made peace with McCain, given the alternative. Therefore, for McCain the less said, the better.

And as seen with his brief bout with abortion politics, the more Obama dwells on the topic the less likely he is to woo religious conservatives and the more nervous pro-choice groups may become. (Rather than revisit knotty policy issues Obama is now contemplating more atmospheric steps to reach out to pro-life voters such as inviting Senator Bob Casey (D-PA), a pro-life Catholic and son of Governor Robert P. Casey Sr., who was banned from speaking at the 1992 convention because of his pro-life views.)