Since Barack Obama and John McCain became the presumptive presidential nominees, they have been attacking each other on the slowing economy, the high price of gas, and the war in Iraq. But one thing this already bruising election has yet to feature is another round of the culture war.
While the two candidates have been more than eager to share their views on, say, nuclear energy, when it comes to same-sex marriage and abortion, two hot-button issues that have loomed large in the past few presidential races, both Obama and McCain have been relatively quiet. The two senators spoke candidly about their faiths, and their views, recently with the Rev. Rick Warren, the evangelical minister of Saddleback Church, but on the campaign trail, they have largely evaded the hard details of social policy, cloaking their language instead in vague references to judicial appointments. "There's an understandable reluctance to address these issues in public forums," says John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. "For everyone you please, there's someone you irritate."
Still, the candidates' avoidance of these issues has puzzled some activists at both ends of the political spectrum. Obama and McCain have roughly the same position on same-sex marriage—both oppose it and would prefer the matter be left to the states—but when it comes to abortion, in particular, there are few issues they disagree on more. Obama is an unabashed supporter of abortion rights and a defender of Roe v. Wade. As a senator, he received a 100 percent rating from NARAL Pro-Choice America, a group that has given McCain, who has opposed abortion rights throughout his political career, a zero percent rating.
Party line. McCain, to be fair, earned his maverick reputation in the Senate partly because he has veered away from the social conservative hard line on occasion. He has said laws prohibiting abortion should have exceptions for rape, incest, and the life—though not necessarily the health—of the mother, and he voted in 2007 to increase federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, a position that drew silence at Saddleback. But for the most part, McCain follows the party line. "Middle-of-the-road voters think of him in this kind of nebulous maverick way, and they don't associate him with the very strong conservative culture war issues," says Kathryn Kolbert, president of People for the American Way. "But, in fact, he is very strongly antiabortion."
The candidates certainly show no signs of wavering. In their years in the Senate, McCain supported legislation that tried to make unborn children eligible for federal health insurance assistance, a bill opponents said was an attempt to overturn Roe; Obama opposed it. Obama voted to expand access to teen-pregnancy-prevention programs designed to reduce the number of abortions; McCain voted against it.McCain voted for a bill that required parents to be notified when children who are minors request out-of-state abortions; Obama voted against it. McCain, most notably, helped pass the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003, a law prohibiting a late-term abortion procedure that was upheld last year by the Supreme Court, even though it did not include an exception for the health of the mother. Obama, who was not yet in office when the law was passed, said he "strongly disagree[s]" with the court's decision.
Instead of emphasizing this gap, though, both candidates have been treading softly on social policy. In a speechMcCain delivered to the National Right to Life convention last month and again at Saddleback in mid-August, he promised to toe the conservative line on "life" issues and nominate judges "in the cast of" John G. Roberts and Samuel Alito, both conservatives who are considered to be against abortion rights. The Arizona senator has also quietly thrown his support behind initiatives that would ban gay marriage in California and his home state this fall. Obama, meanwhile, who told a gathering at Planned Parenthood last summer that he "will not yield" on the issue of choice, has hardly mentioned the word abortion on the campaign trail. (At Saddleback, Obama deferred on defining when life begins, saying that was "above my pay grade.") He says he prefers civil unions to gay marriage, though after the California Supreme Court declared a state ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional this spring, Obama said he opposed a ballot initiative to overturn the ruling because it would "roll back" rights afforded to domestic partners.
So, a few carefully worded equivocations aside, why all the tip-toeing around? There is at least one easy answer. "Both Obama and McCain have said they want to reach out to the middle," says Brian Schaffner, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. "Abortion's not something you talk about when you're trying to win the center."
There's no question the country remains deeply divided on these matters. A Quinnipiac University poll conducted last month found that likely voters support Roe by a 63-to-33 percent margin, but nearly 40 percent say abortion should be illegal in "most" or "all" cases. The same poll shows 55 percent of voters oppose same-sex marriage, though a majority say they don't want the government to be involved in banning the practice. And while nearly 9 in 10 likely voters believe the president's power to appoint Supreme Court justices, who often have the final word on social policy, will be "very important" or "somewhat important" to their vote this fall, the campaigns seem to have recognized that with the economy struggling, they have to pick their battles.
For the time being, in other words, the culture war's very divisiveness may keep them at bay. That is just fine with Obama, who is making a concerted effort to reach out to evangelicals and conservative Roman Catholics, two groups that have supported Republicans for decades. "Obama wants to address social issues in a way that tries to take the sharp edge off the wedge," says Mark Silk, a professor of religion in public life at Trinity College. Instead of focusing on the legality of abortion, he is trying to find common ground with anti-abortion-rights voters, focusing on ways to decrease the number of unintended teen pregnancies and ensure access to affordable birth control. With Obama's approval, the Democratic Party included new language in the party platform that emphasizes the importance not just of reducing the number of abortions but of providing support to women who decide to have a child. So far, polls don't show him gaining much ground. Twenty-four percent of evangelicals say they're planning to support Obama, compared with 68 percent who support McCain. (In 2004, Bush won the evangelical vote, 78 to 21.) But with the candidates deadlocked among Catholics, Obama still has plenty of incentive to stay above the old cultural fray. "I am absolutely convinced that the culture wars are so '90s," Obama has said. "We're tired of arguing about the same old stuff. And I am convinced we can win that argument."
Shaping elections. McCain seems more than happy to follow suit, if not for quite the same reasons. Since his campaign began, he has steered clear of the electoral strategy of George W. Bush, who rallied conservative voters to the polls by talking about a "culture of life" and supporting a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. "McCain doesn't seem to have any particular enthusiasm for talking about this stuff," says Steven Wagner, a Republican pollster who was a key strategist for Bush's Catholic outreach efforts. While he has tried to reassure conservatives with soothing words about judicial appointments, his campaign is targeted mostly at the working class and independents. When a reporter recently asked McCain to clarify his stance on gay adoption, he replied: "My answer is, it's not the reason why I'm running for president of the United States."
Presidential elections are shaped by much more than just the words of candidates, of course. Even if Obama and McCain are leery of diving back into the culture war, independent groups are keeping the fires burning. In the past few weeks, conservatives have been trying to depict Obama as a radical on abortion, raising questions about his vote as an Illinois state senator against legislation designed to protect fetuses that survived abortion procedures. Initiatives that would ban same-sex marriage are on the ballots in California, Arizona, and Florida. Conservative and liberal groups alike are mobilizing massive get-out-the-vote efforts, raising more than $30 million combined for advertising campaigns that will kick off in October. "I'm sure that there will be millions of people of faith [for whom] these moral issues will have a dominant place," says Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family Action.
Even after the expected advertising deluge begins, though, most analysts aren't sure social issues will resonate as much as they did in 2004, when exit polls famously found "moral values" to be many voters' top priority. "It's one thing to talk about issues like gay marriage or abortion when there aren't other pressing problems facing Americans," says Schaffner. "But when the economy's bad, people stop caring about issues like that and start worrying about where the next paycheck's coming from." The culture war may not be over, but so far, anyway, the real battles in this election are being fought in a different theater.