With Palin on the GOP Ticket, a Return to the Culture Wars

But in stoking passions about wedge issues, McCain may jeopardize his appeal to independents.


The Palin pick was McCain's way of reigniting the culture war, a limited culture war, while not getting too directly involved in it. Depending on how it works out, it will be deemed a brilliant or disastrous strategy. At the very least, it is a risky one.

McCain's senior advisers have themselves admitted that Palin was picked to ensure a strong conservative turnout in such decisive battleground states as Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. She should also shore up traditionally Republican western states, including Colorado, which has shown 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—in short, to the vast slice of American voters that decides national elections.

McCain's gambit tries to yoke together two seemingly irreconcilable strategies: on one hand, the Karl Rove-inspired 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, and pragmatism.

It will be considered a good trick if it works, of course. And some of the best young conservative thinkers (including Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, authors of the recent Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American 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. To such conservatives, McCain-Palin is just the ticket when it comes to driving home the connection between faith, values, strong families, and economic security.

But Democrats can point out that they had already absorbed that message. Consider Obama's emphasis on family-friendly policies, including faith-based initiatives, as well the new Democratic plank that aims to lower the demand for abortion by providing support to mothers who go to term. Democrats can argue that a culture war, even a somewhat limited one, only raises the rhetorical heat, making it another war that Americans cannot afford.