- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 25, 2004

The Supreme Court case over whether to keep a reference to God in the Pledge of Allegiance is the latest skirmish in the “culture wars” that are helping shape the presidential election, much to the delight of Republicans.

From homosexual “marriage” to the immensely popular film “The Passion of the Christ,” cultural issues are emerging as an important subplot in a campaign dominated by national security and the economy.

With the electorate polarized, as recent surveys show, appealing to and exciting the political base is seen as more important than usual. In 1992, President George H.W. Bush lost his re-election bid, and many analysts cited his weak support among conservatives and failure to appeal to the cultural and religious right.

But some Democrats are worried that the culture wars will help the current President Bush.

“He sort of wins on a lot of these issues without even firing a shot,” said Democrat Manfred Wolf, an English professor at San Francisco State University. “It’s just a feeling that a lot of people have that the country is growing soft, and they don’t like it.

“The Republicans tend to cash in on this,” he added. “I would hate to see the Democratic Party get caught in this, because the Democratic Party will lose on these cultural issues.”

The Bush campaign agreed.

“The Democrats’ position on almost all of these issues is anti-majoritarian,” said a senior campaign official. “Their position is: Because we don’t trust the majorities in defining marriage, or in establishing appropriate laws in their states on things like abortion or on so many other fronts, we need to step in and have an elite group of people who share our values tell the majority what to do.”

For example, he said, the left warned that Mel Gibson’s “The Passion,” which graphically depicts Jesus’ crucifixion, would incite anti-Semitism.

“Think about what they’re saying: You can’t be trusted to go see this movie. You can’t be trusted, or your passions will rise up,” said the Bush campaign official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Ignoring such warnings, enormous numbers of Christians and other Americans have been deeply moved by “The Passion,” which is poised to become one of the biggest moneymakers in film history despite its R rating.

When the movie was released last month, the president publicly expressed his desire to see it, although he has not yet had the opportunity. In contrast, Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate, fretted that it would fuel anti-Semitism.

“I am concerned,” the Massachusetts Democrat told reporters. “I don’t know if it’s there or not, but there’s a lot of it around now. I think we have to be careful.”

Kerry spokeswoman Kathy Roeder said yesterday she did not know whether the candidate had seen the film. She also said Mr. Kerry has not taken a position on whether the Pledge of Allegiance should include the phrase “under God,” which is being challenged in the Supreme Court.

“The culture wars are used as a fallback by members of the Republican Party when they don’t have any accomplishments they can be positive about,” Miss Roeder said. “So they try to highlight divisive issues.”

When Mr. Bush advocated a constitutional amendment banning homosexual “marriage,” Republicans expected the president to reap political dividends. But the Kerry campaign portrayed the president as bashing homosexuals and tampering with the Constitution for the purposes of discrimination.

The episode proved how tricky cultural issues can become in a political campaign, even when a candidate takes a stand supported by most Americans.

So far, Mr. Bush has not yet highlighted his support of the death penalty or the ban on partial-birth abortion, both of which are hot-button cultural issues. Mr. Kerry opposes the partial-birth abortion ban and the death penalty for criminals, putting himself at odds with the majority of Americans.

Miss Roeder said Republicans regularly invoke “wedge issues” such as the death penalty and Pledge of Allegiance to divert attention from more pressing concerns such as the economy. She questioned the wisdom of “raising the perennial hot-button social issues that have been debated in our society for a generation.”

“There’s a miscalculation that trying to do something that appeases a small section of your base … is going to be popular with the mainstream,” she said.

The Bush campaign disagreed.

“All elections — even those that tend to be economically driven — are decided based on values,” said the campaign official. “And it’s better to be culturally right than culturally left.

“The problem the left has had for, frankly, 30 years is their positions on these cultural issues have essentially said to the American people: A) we don’t trust you because we think we know better, and B) we are obsessively worried about some fringe argument or some fringe element, at the expense of the people.”

The Bush campaign cited exit polls during the 2002 midterm elections that showed that “volatile” voters — those who said abortion or gun control was their top issue — overwhelmingly favored Republicans.

“On so many of these ‘cultural issues,’ what is true in Bethesda is not true in most of America,” the official said. “In fact, in most of America, a thoughtful, culturally conservative position that is based on principle is one that consistently is also good politics.”

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