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Democrats and the New Wedge Issues

David Callahan

Here's a day that many of us thought we'd never see: Hot button topics like immigration and contraception operating as wedge issues -- but in ways that benefit Democrats.

Start with the awkward spot that the White House has placed Mitt Romney in with its policy shift on the deportation of young immigrants.

Over recent decades, immigration has often been an issue that divides liberal Democratic leaders from white working class voters -- with Republicans arguing that Democratic coddling of illegals was yet more evidence that the party didn't share the cultural values of heartland America.

Now, though, the dynamic has changed. President Obama's move hasn't just shored up his support among Latino voters, a key group in swing states like Colorado and Florida; he's also appealing to independent voters who support a more compassionate stance on deportation.

According to a Bloomberg poll released Tuesday, 65 percent of independent voters support Obama on this issue, with just 26 percent opposing the move. Meanwhile, 56 percent of Republicans oppose the new policy -- and, no doubt, such opposition is even stronger among the GOP's activist base of Tea Party conservatives.

These numbers help explain why Romney has been so tongue-tied about Obama's dramatic announcement: If Romney reassures base voters that he's tough on immigration, he'll alienate the independents he needs to win. But if he supports the new policy, he'll rile the base and perhaps depress turnout among these crucial diehards in November.

Something similar is going on with women's issues. Romney desperately needs to woo back moderate women voters who have been alienated by the conservative "war on women." But if he tacks too far to the center on abortion or contraception in pursuit of those voters, he'll anger the evangelicals who constitute a huge chunk of the Republican electorate -- they made up nearly half of GOP primary voters in 2008. High levels of enthusiasm and turnout among this group is crucial if Romney is to take the White House. So here, too, Romney faces a difficult dilemma, and it's no wonder the Obama campaign is playing up women's issues every chance it gets. 

Once upon a time, of course, gender played out in nearly the exact opposite way: Democrats lost the Archie Bunker crowd by standing with feminists and pro-choicers.

Even gay marriage has, unbelievably, morphed into a wedge issue that benefits Democrats. By expressing support for gay marriage, Obama is telegraphing moderate voters that he shares their tolerance and forward-looking modernism. Yes, that stance will cost him among working class whites, but Obama has already lost many of those voters anyway.

Here, too, Romney faces an unenviable choice: Rally the base by opposing same-sex marriage, or woo independents by expressing tolerance and showing he is not a throwback to the fifties.

The Obama team is well aware of the changing politics of wedge issues, and is making the most of it, according to Politico:

President Barack Obama’s campaign wants to turn Mitt Romney into the candidate of old, straight, white men.

Of course, his aides would never state it so crudely. But that’s the unmistakable aim of their political strategy of the past two months.

We are definitely living in different times if being too straight, male, and white is an electoral disadvantage. But given fast changing demographics, such different times are indeed upon us -- as Ruy Teixeira has been forecasting for years and explains in more specific detail in his recently published book: America’s New Swing Region: Changing Politics and Demographics in the Mountain West.

Teixeira, too, has written insightfully about the decline of the cultural war, which is bad news for conservatives who rode that conflict to victory again and again from the 1960s onward.

America is changing, becoming less white and more tolerant. Whether these changes are important enough to secure Obama's reelection in the face of a terrible economy remains to be seen. But, long term, the shifts seem to presage a progressive majority.