The Return of the Culture Wars

Gay marriage and abortion will likely be contentious issues in 2012.

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Wedge issues are back. These are the questions that stir up emotions and divide Americans in a particularly intense way. And both major parties are again using them to advance themselves and their candidates—and to raise money.

Wedge issues are back. These are the questions that stir up emotions and divide Americans in a particularly intense way. And both major parties are again using them to advance themselves and their candidates—and to raise money.

The Democrats are hammering Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney for strongly opposing abortion rights, arguing that his views are extreme and out of step with those of most Americans, especially women. For their part, many Republicans are focusing on opposing gay marriage, arguing that the Democrats are the ones who are out of step with majority opinion and mainstream values.

[Read: Both Sides See Same-Sex Marriage as Winning Issue in 2012.]

The Democratic National Committee is attacking Romney for saying on Fox News that he "absolutely" supports a constitutional amendment that says human life begins at conception. Democratic strategists and others say Romney's remark means he would support a "personhood " constitutional amendment such as one on the ballot in Mississippi next week which defines a fertilized human egg as a person for legal purposes. The measure would bar aborton and some forms of birth control that prevent fertilized eggs from being implanted in a uterus, like IUD's and morning-after pills.

Patrick Gaspard, the DNC's executive director, has sent an e-mail and a video to reporters and Democratic activists arguing that Romney "is on the record in favor of a law that would classify literally all abortions—even many forms of birth control—as murder. To be clear: This is the most radical position any of the Republican candidates have taken on this issue, and may be the most radical position any of them have taken on any substantive issue in the race for the nomination so far."

Gaspard's comments may be a stretch. For example, Romney didn't specifically endorse the "personhood" amendment in Mississippi. And other GOP presidential candidates, including Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, also bill themselves as very strong foes of abortion.

[See photos of 2012 GOP hopefuls on the campaign trail.]

A complicating factor is that Romney has done a well-publicized reversal on abortion over the years from when he was pro-choice as a politician in Massachusetts.

A spokeswoman for Romney tried to shift the discussion back to the economy, which is where Romney believes he has an advantage as a former businessman. "It's too bad this White House isn't as focused on attacking unemployment as they are in attacking our campaign," the Romney spokeswoman said.

The flashpoint on gay issues is the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which denies federal benefits to married same-sex couples and defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman. It is being challenged in several court cases as unconstitutional, guaranteeing that the issue will be debated well into next year, when it is likely to be considered by the Supreme Court.

A group of congressional Democrats has signed a friend-of-the-court brief in a Boston court as part of a lawsuit challenging the law. The brief argues that DOMA disciminates against gay people and violates the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection under the law. Republicans generally defend DOMA.

[Debate Club: Should Gay Marriage be Legal Nationwide?]

The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to vote next week on a bill to repeal DOMA but in the end, GOP legislators are expected to defeat it.

All this maneuvering suggests that the issue of gay marriage will again prompt a divisive debate across the country, including in the states that hold early contests for the Republican nomination such as Iowa, New Hampshire, Florida, Nevada, and South Carolina. The same is true for the issue of abortion. It goes to show that, after being submerged for a while, the culture wars are back, and there are many fierce debates ahead.

  • See a collection of political cartoons on the GOP hopefuls.
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  • Peter Roff: Mississippi Voters May Change Abortion Debate.