The "wedge issues" are coming back, just in time for the 2012 presidential campaign. These are the social questions that have divided Americans for many years, such as gay rights, abortion, and "family values." They had been relatively dormant on a national scale for a long time. But that ended when the Obama administration resurrected the gay-rights debate by announcing that it would no longer support the Defense of Marriage Act, which forbids the recognition of same-sex marriage and defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman. The law is being challenged in court, but President Obama and the Justice Department have concluded that it's unconstitutional. Focusing more attention on the gay-rights issue was the Supreme Court's ruling Wednesday that a church has the legal right to stage anti-gay protests at military funerals to publicize its belief that God is punishing the United States for tolerating homosexuality. [Read the U.S. News debate: Should military funeral protests be protected by the First Amendment?]
Obama's decision on the Defense of Marriage Act prompted a torrent of reaction, pro and con. Gay-rights groups praised Obama and said he did the right thing. They argue that it's unfair and unconstitutional to single out the gay community in the profoundly personal matters of love and marriage. Obama's decision will likely increase his support among gays, lesbians, and their allies in the 2012 campaign.
But conservatives are upset. They argue not only that Obama should be supporting traditional marriage, but also that his decision not to defend a duly-enacted law is another example of how his administration puts the president's views above those of the country, or at least a significant portion of the electorate. Christian conservatives in particular predict that Obama's decision will re-energize anti-gay-rights forces in opposition to the president.
In the past few years, the wedge issues have been crowded out of the public debate by more pressing concerns, such as the meltdown in the financial and auto industries, the high unemployment rate, the soaring deficit, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But now the debate over social issues seems to be re-emerging with new intensity, especially within the Republican Party. Some activists on the right have condemned Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels for supporting a "truce" on social issues until the economy can be strengthened. Daniels, who is considering a run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, may be a hero to fiscal conservatives on tax and budget issues, but his stand on social issues is anathema to many social conservatives. [Read 10 things you didn't know about Mitch Daniels.]
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who is also considering a GOP presidential run, has attacked Daniels for his truce proposal and for backing away, specifically, from a battle over the Defense of Marriage Act. "It shows that there are some people who are willing to stand up and fight for the family and others who would rather, to use the comment of one potential candidate, call a truce on these things," Santorum recently told a public television station in Iowa. "Well, a truce, in this case, means ceding ground to the other side." Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, still another potential White House contender, predicts that gay marriage will energize a key segment of the conservative movement next year, even though nearly half of the general electorate supports gay marriage, according to the polls. [Check out our editorial cartoons on gay marriage.]
Other wedge issues are regaining prominence. In the first-in-the-South primary state of South Carolina, the issue of limiting abortion rights is being hotly debated in the state legislature. There is also a strong antiabortion movement in Iowa, the first caucus state, and New Hampshire, the first primary state.
On still another social issue, personal morality, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is also considering a GOP presidential bid, was asked by a questioner at a forum in Pennsylvania recently how he squared his messy personal life, including admitted adultery and three marriages, with his advocacy of stronger moral values in the nation. Gingrich replied testily that he has made personal mistakes, but urged voters to evaluate him on the basis of his policy ideas, not his private character.
Obviously, even though they are not of paramount importance to most voters in an era of economic trouble and high unemployment, social issues are still crucial to many Americans. The problem is that wedge issues make people particularly angry, and reviving them would certainly add to our platter of polarization.