Sotomayor is Obama's Second Salvo in the Culture Wars

Sotomayor confirmation hearings could turn the culture wars if Republicans aren't very careful.

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Brad Bannon is president of Bannon Communications Research, a political consulting and polling firm that works for Democrats, labor unions, and progressive-issue groups.

Sonia Sotomayor is exactly the person that the Supreme Court needs. She is a distinguished jurist and will be the first Latina to serve on the Supreme Court. As a bonus, she will improve female representation on the Court and, because of her background as a poor kid from the Bronx, she will give voice to the millions of Americans who are struggling economically to keep their heads above water.

President Obama's appointment of Judge Sotomayor to the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court will also begin the culture wars in earnest.

Actually, the first shot in the culture wars was President Obama's response to antiabortion advocates who boycotted his appearance at Notre Dame University's commencement ceremony. In his speech, the president tried to find common ground between the pro-choice and pro-life forces. His attempt to moderate the culture war contrasts with his economic program, where the president has gone full steam ahead without compromises that would lessen Republican opposition.

The contrast between the president's approach to social and to economic policy reflects Democratic confidence in its strength on bread-and-butter issues and a defensiveness on cultural issues.

Even though Democrats usually win battles on the economic front, their track record in culture wars are not nearly as good. Since the 1960s, Republicans have successfully used the social issues to drive a wedge between blue-collar union members and the Democratic Party with a steady diet of guns, God, and gays. And even now, after getting Congress to pass his stimulus program, the president not been able to prevent NRA supporters in the Senate from attaching pro-gun riders to important pieces of legislation.

But after three months of focusing on the economy like the proverbial laser beam, the Sotomayor confirmation hearings will force the president to fight the culture wars whether he wants to or not. Since Massachusetts legalized gay marriage four years ago, the focus of the culture wars has moved from abortion to gay rights.

This week, the California Supreme Court upheld the voter ban on gay marriage that passed last year. This case is likely to get to the Supreme Court, so the Republicans in the Senate will probably focus on Judge Sotomayor's positions on same-sex marriage. The judge will probably be noncommittal on the subject to avoid prejudicing future cases, but the left and right will press her on the ramifications of the California case.

The GOP is chomping at the bit for a fight over Judge Sotomayor, even though Republicans know they will lose the confirmation battle. They will fight the nomination anyway because it energizes the base, helps them raise money, and puts Democrats, including the president, on the defensive. So expect the Senate Republicans to fight Judge Sotomayor tooth and nail.

But the GOP should be wary of the demons that fly out of Pandora's box during the confirmation hearings. Although the culture wars have not been kind to the Democrats in the past, they may become an advantage for the party.

Support for gay marriage has increased significantly in the last few years and a clear majority of Americans under 40 support same-sex marriage. As the millennial voters make up more of the electorate, support for gay marriage will increase. Voters under 30 voted for Barack Obama last year, and the GOP is in danger of losing a group that could give Republicans fits for a whole generation. Young voters are very liberal socially and GOP opposition to gay marriage will drive a wedge between the party and the fasting-growing segment of the voter pool.

Gay marriage has been legal in Massachusetts for four years and it clearly has not shaken the cultural foundations of the state. As more and more states like Vermont and Iowa legalize same-sex marriage, more and more voters will get used to the idea.