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.)
The degree to which both candidates would like to avoid these issues is demonstrated by their reaction, or lack of reaction, to proposed regulations by the Bush administration on contraception. The draft regulations would require all organizations that receive federal funding for health programs to certify in writing that they will not “discriminate” against doctors and nurses who oppose abortion and many types of contraception. The draft proposal also would define abortion as “any of the various procedures — including the prescription, dispensing, and administration of any drug or the performance of any procedure or any other action — that results in the termination of the life of a human being in utero between conception and natural birth, whether before or after implantation.” (Under that definition common birth-control pills, emergency contraception, and the intra-uterine device (IUD) would be considered “abortion.”)
Pro-choice groups have accused the Bush administration of giving a parting gift to religious conservatives by trying to fundamentally reshape federal policy on contraception. Obama signed onto a letter with other Democrats blasting the proposal. But he has yet to raise it as a campaign issue or talk up the potential impact on women’s reproductive rights. Again, less is more, apparently.
But John McCain has been even more reticent to weigh in. In response to our request for his position, his campaign replied that the regulations were in draft only and that the campaign declined to offer an opinion. And it is not hard to see why McCain might prefer silence. Should he weigh in against the regulations, social conservatives would surely object; should he indicate support, his efforts to reach out to women and moderate voters –many of whom may oppose abortion but still don’t equate birth control with abortion– might be complicated. (After this issue hit the press, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt subsequently commented that the controversial version of the regulations was an “early draft” and it was not his intent equate contraception with abortion.)
Despite the candidates’ relative silence on these topics, the real battles on social issues, as we have seen in recent stormy Supreme Court confirmation battles, are largely waged and then won or lost in the courts. Here the candidates have been more forthright. Obama has identified as his ideal Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, both of whom who have repeated ruled in favor of Roe v. Wade and against any abortion restrictions, including partial birth abortion. McCain, by contrast, has given numerous speeches decrying judicial activism and lists Justices Roberts and Alito and the late Chief Justice Rehnquist as his favorites.
And it is in the courts where virtually all of these issues eventually wind up. Obama surrogate and Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano gave away the worst-kept secret in politics on social issues when she said “it’s about who fills the federal bench.” In short, regardless of winks and nods to social conservatives, no one should be confused as to what type of judges, both at the Supreme Court and lower courts, Obama would appoint.
So a rather muted debate on social issues may be just fine for both sides. Although activists might prefer a robust debate, it seems that the candidates have decided there is far more to lose than to be gained. With polling showing that voters rank social issues near the bottom of their priorities, the candidates face little pressure to reignite the debate.
And for those voters in the forefront of the campaign –the critical independent voters in a handful of states– that may be just fine. With issues of war, energy, and the economy dominating the debate, they may be just as happy for the candidates to avoid emotional appeals on issues which, in the case of marriage, remain a state issue and, in the case of abortion, largely the bailiwick of the courts.
So all that talk in 2004 about “values” voters? It turned out to be just talk.