Sarah Palin Sparks Revival of the Culture War

Along with the economic concerns, voters split over so-called values issues.

At a rally in Golden, Colo., Palin's supporters back her on culturally divisive issues.

At a rally in Golden, Colo., Palin's supporters back her on culturally divisive issues.

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The Palin pick, notes Medved, proves "that this idea that conservatives frown on women with careers is a bad rap." While he may be right, it is easy to see how the antifeminist diatribes of old-guard religious right leaders like Falwell and Robertson could have been interpreted, at least in part, as a criticism of women who left the traditional sphere of home and family to pursue careers. If that was the case in the older culture war, it's clear that "working moms" are now valued by members of the conservative movement, including social conservatives.

And conservatives are not the only ones who are talking about the effectiveness of Palin's populist appeal. Celinda Lake, president of Lake Research Partners, a leading Democratic polling firm, says that the ABC poll probably overstates the size of the gender shift after the Republican convention, but she acknowledges that there was a significant change among older, non-college-educated women, a subgroup that has been particularly volatile in this election cycle.

The brilliance of the Palin pick, Lake says, is that she reassures the right-wing base while also appealing to a wider swath of Wal-Mart moms and grandmoms as someone who "gets" their life. And Palin's can-do, maverick style impresses moderate and progressive women as well as conservative ones. Above all, Lake argues, Palin takes the focus offMcCain and the McCain policies that are most troubling to working women, including his healthcare and Social Security proposals.

"She's very smart," says Lake, who has worked for Palin's political opponents in Alaska. "She will give the cue to the right wing but embed it in a personal story so people don't realize how ideological she is. They tend to think that those are just her personal views and that she won't impose them on the rest of us. Which, of course, she will."

The question, in Lake's view, is whether Palin can continue to appeal to those two different kinds of voters, the far right and the moderates. And more to the point, whetherMcCain himself can win the election by yoking together two seemingly irreconcilable strategies: on one hand, the Karl Rove-style strategy of energizing the base by emphasizing wedge issues (in this case, values issues); on the other, the moderate tack of winning the broad middle through a politics of consensus, reform, pragmatism, and "real folks" populism. The challenge facing McCain is to create plausible links between the two broad strategies. And some of the best young conservative thinkers (including Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, authors of the recent Grand New Party: How Re publicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the Ameri can Dream) argue that values issues are anything but a distraction from the economic concerns of nervous working people and a growing swath of the middle class.

But Democrats can point out that they have already absorbed the importance of that connection and are working to strengthen it. Consider Obama's emphasis on family-friendly policies, including healthcare reform. He can also point to his support of faith-based initiatives and a new plank in the Democratic platform that aims to lower the demand for abortion by providing support to mothers who take their pregnancies to term. Although there is now more enthusiasm for the Republican ticket among religious conservatives, Pew Forum researcher Masci says that evangelicals "are still up for grabs." Obama's campaign will continue to reach out to those voters, even while making the argument that a culture war only raises the rhetorical heat, making it another war that Americans cannot afford.