It wasn't supposed to be a culture-war election, and not only because Iraq and the economy had shoved values issues into the background.
The Republican candidate, at least back in his early, presumptive days, was notoriously uncomfortable talking about religion, and many conservative Christian leaders were equally uncomfortable with him. John McCain, after all, had once called Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson "agents of intolerance." In a straw poll held at last year's Values Voter Summit, he came in last among the Republican hopefuls. And James Dobson, head of the influential Focus on the Family, let it be known that he wouldn't vote for McCain "under any circumstances."
The Democratic candidate, by contrast, was at ease with his faith, biblically fluent, and reportedly doing an excellent job of reaching out to the elusive values voter. Barack Obama's efforts to attract those voters were complicated by the Jeremiah Wright episode, the unfounded Muslim rumors, and his steadfast support of Roe v. Wade. Nevertheless, a Barna Group poll conducted before the political conventions showed him leading his Republican opponent in 18 of 19 faith communities, the only exception being evangelicals.
But it wasn't just that McCain and Obama seemed so ill-suited to the usual culture-warrior roles. Evangelicals, conservative Roman Catholics, and other values voters themselves seemed to be changing. Younger ones in particular were said to be broadening their agenda beyond abortion and gay marriage and paying less attention to the older, more single-minded leaders of the religious right. No longer would they be part of a single voting bloc, captive to a single party—or so declared a widely circulated "Evangelical Manifesto" issued in May by a number of prominent evangelical scholars and clergy. "People were saying that Obama really could compete for young evangelicals," says David Masci, a senior research fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
On top of that, symptoms of culture-war fatigue were widespread. Such prominent culture warriors as Pat Buchanan had declared that values issues were more appropriately resolved at the state and local levels than at the national one. For the first time in more than 10 years, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll, a slim majority of Americans, including conservative voters, were saying that they wanted less religion in politics, not more.
But something happened on the way to the party conventions. At the much-ballyhooed leadership forum August 16 at Saddleback Church in Southern California, the Rev. Rick Warren quizzed both candidates on their deepest convictions. McCain came across as confident and certain, particularly on the hot-button question of when life begins. Obama seemed to struggle with nuances. In front of a predominantly evangelical audience, certainty played better than nuance. McCain came out of Saddleback with a bounce and new confidence. Maybe he could talk this talk, after all?
Conservative activists began to think so. "The real change came at Saddleback," says Randy Brinson, whose organization, Redeem the Vote, played a key role in getting values voters to the polls in the 2004 election. Tony Perkins, president of the Washington-based Family Research Council, a conservative advocacy group, says that Saddleback was one of the three things that re-energized social conservatives. The second was what he calls the "most family-friendly" platform ever drafted by the Republican Party. And the third, of course, was McCain's selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate.
Push from Palin. It was a choice that surprised most social conservatives. Fearing that McCain was tending toward abortion-rights supporters Sen. Joe Lieberman or former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, conservative activists lobbied hard for him to reconsider. They reminded the candidate that roughly three quarters of the Republican convention delegates opposed abortion. But even the day before he announced his pick, it was unclear which way McCain would go. Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony's List, an anti-abortion political action committee, says that Palin's name did not even appear on a list of 10 possible candidates that was then being whispered about.
After the news came out, a lineup of once reluctant conservative Christians came out forcefully for the Republican ticket. Even Dobson said that he was now on board. And when Palin addressed the convention, she wasted no time in making her role clear: Alluding to Obama's controversial remarks about working-class Americans who turn to guns and God when the economy sours, she presented herself as proof that his characterization was not only false but condescending. Proof, furthermore, that he was out of touch with God-fearing heartland America.
McCain hardly needed to say any more on that point when his time to speak came. His choice of Palin said it all. Not only was she antiabortion; she was against it in all cases, except to save the life of the mother. Not only was she pro-gun; she was a hunter herself. The Palin pick was seen by many as McCain's way of reigniting the culture war—a limited culture war—while not getting too directly involved in it.
In fact, says James Davison Hunter, a sociologist at the University of Virginia and the first scholar to apply the culture-war concept to the American scene, that war had never really gone away but had only moved into the background. The Palin pick, he says, returned it to the foreground, where it now shares the limelight (and headlines) with the economy and the war. But it's not, he believes, the same old battle. "The lines of the culture war are changing," he says. "The gender views, for one, were so much sharper, traditional versus modern. So much has changed in the last 28 years."
Depending on how it works out, the decision to bring the culture war back into the foreground of the campaign will be deemed a brilliant gamble or a disastrous one. McCain's senior advisers have said that Palin was picked to ensure a strong conservative turnout in decisive battleground states like Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. It was also hoped that she would shore up traditionally Republican western states, some of which (including Colorado) show signs of going Democratic. But if Palin draws too much attention to issues such as abortion, if the culture war heats up and comes to dominate discussion, there is a danger that she could weaken McCain's appeal not only to moderates within his own party but also to independents and conservative Democrats who might have swung his way.
So far, though, the strategy looks promising. At the 2008 Values Voter Summit earlier this month, activists as well as rank-and-file social conservatives spoke of McCain and the Republican Party as though both had finally awoken to the importance of the party's core constituency. "There is something happening that hasn't happened since Reagan," Dannenfelser says, noting the huge increase in calls and contributions that her organization received after the convention. "Even the gender gap has flipped."
A certain post-convention bounce was bound to benefit the Republican ticket, but the shift among white women voters from Obama to McCain was startling proof that the Palin pick had appeal even beyond the strictly defined social conservatives and values voters of the Republican base. An ABC News/Washing ton Post poll reported the biggest change among white women: from 50 percent to 42 percent in favor of Obama before the convention to 53 percent to 41 percent in favor of McCain after it. But what was the basis of Palin's appeal, and how did it reflect what Hunter calls the "changing lines" of the culture war?
GOP populists. Put simply, this was a culture war waged on the lines of authenticity and connectedness, a war in which the Republican ticket claims the populist mantle while depicting the opposition as out-of-touch, cosmopolitan elitists. Conservative author Michael Medved, one of the featured speakers at the recent Values Voter Summit, says that the presence of a real working mom on the ticket is part of what has made this the most populist Republican ticket in a long time. "It goes beyond values issues," he says. "If one value trumps all others, it's normality and authenticity. Both Palin and McCain are mavericks, authentic, and original."
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.