The culture war is back.
Actually, it never left. Ideological struggles over reproductive rights, sexuality, gender norms, evolution, and public religious expressions have continued apace, but have taken a backseat to the worst economic crisis the nation has faced since the Great Depression. National unemployment rates crested over 10% in 2009 and now reside at 8.3%, leading some conservatives to call for a “truce” on social issues in this election.
It isn’t back with the same strength as the mid-2000s, when conservative opponents of abortion rights and same-sex marriage were on the winning political side. In 2003, Congress passed legislation banning late-term abortions and the next year 11 states passed ballot initiatives banning same-sex marriage. The conservative energy behind these laws helped George W. Bush secure a second term in the White House. Times have changed: political progressives are now on the offense.
So it isn’t quite a full-on culture war — yet. That could change today, however, when our own Washington state becomes the epicenter of one front of this clash: same-sex marriage.
And one thing to note: Rick Santorum has been waiting for this moment, while Mitt Romney has been dreading it.
The spark of the current cultural showdowns was the debacle by the Susan G. Komen organization two weeks ago regarding its financial support of Planned Parenthood. Republican-led legislatures in several states have been defunding Planned Parenthood over the past couple years, and GOP presidential candidates have regularly committed to doing the same if they gain the White House.
But this policy position did not attract a national spotlight until Komen performed a BP-like public relations disaster: first it pulled its funding of Planned Parenthood, then it reinstated it, then a top executive resigned over it. Women’s rights activists on the left and religious conservatives on the right were suddenly off the sidelines in a big way. In the end (or at least the current end), liberals got what they wanted — Komen will continue to fund Planned Parenthood. But the temperature of the country had begun to rise.
In the wake of this national tug-o-war, the Obama administration made its own unforced error. The president angered conservative Catholic leaders by requiring that all non-profit organizations provide women with free access to contraceptives (e.g. birth control pills, the so-called “morning after” pill). Critics called this an abrogation of religious freedom.
The administration announced a modified plan on Friday that has won the support both of liberals — Planned Parenthood’s leadership and EMILY’s List donors — and the moderate Catholics that Obama wanted. So the left appears to have generally won this one, too. But the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is unsatisfied, and the Republican Party made clear over the weekend that they will settle for nothing less than a complete exemption for religious organizations.
A third front of the current culture clash has a decidedly local turn. We will hit a boil today when Washington Governor Christine Gregoire signs the state’s new law granting marital rights to same-sex partners. Washington will be the 7th state to provide such a law, and it’s another victory for political progressives. But it will almost certainly lead to a ballot referendum on the law in this fall’s election, and its passage in the middle of a presidential election immediately makes it a symbol for the left and right.
Enter Santorum. Literally.
The former Pennsylvania senator is riding these culture clashes to the front row of the Republican presidential nominating contest and he’s flying in to Washington state later today. He won GOP caucuses on Tuesday in Minnesota and Colorado and a primary in Missouri on the strength of a coalition of evangelicals, Tea Party supporters, and the most conservative of the Republican electorate.
We saw Santorum campaigning in Colorado, and his focus of “Faith, Family, & Freedom” is spot-on for these culture clashes. Consider, for example, that religious conservatives see the Catholic contraception flareup to be about religious beliefs, family planning, and freedom from government mandates. If Santorum — the only Catholic who made Time magazine’s list of the nation’s 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America in 2005 — could have created an issue to ride to national prominence, he couldn’t have designed a better one.
On Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” he said, “There’s no compromise here” with the Obama administration on the contraceptive coverage, and he declared that the Obama policy forces religious organizations “to pay for something that they find a deeply, morally … wrong thing.” His primary Republican opponent, Romney, also has blasted the Obama administration’s policy, but many conservatives are skeptical of Romney because he once supported abortion rights and offers a mixed record on same-sex marriage.
The culture clashes are buoying Santorum nationally. A Public Policy Polling national poll released Saturday put Santorum up by 15 points over Romney, and at the Conservative Political Action Committee forum over the weekend Santorum came in second in a straw poll to Romney, rising from 2% a year ago to 31% support this weekend. In 2008 at CPAC Romney won with 35% over front-runner John McCain, even though Romney had ended his campaign two days earlier; this time he received 38% support. Other data by Gallup also show Santorum surging.
Santorum also has long made traditional marital relations a core part of his political focus. Most famously, he spoke in the same breath about gay relations and bestiality, earning the ire of The Stranger columnist Dan Savage, who has made Santorum’s political demise a professional goal. Last week when the Washington state Senate passed the same-sex bill, thereby guaranteeing it would become law, Santorum tweeted “Wash St. Sen. votes 2 legalize gay marriage. I would fight 4 Fed Marriage Amendment. We can’t have 50 different definitions of marriage.”
Today, he plans to visit with opponents of the new state law in Olympia, and he will hold a rally in Tacoma. His campaign sees Washington state as an important part of their electoral strategy. Washington offers 43 delegates to Republican candidates, the second most to date in this campaign — after Florida’s 50 on Jan. 31.
Washington lines up well for Santorum for two reasons. First, Republicans will vote in caucuses, which draw the most energized supporters. After covering the campaign in South Carolina, Nevada, and Colorado, I can say with certainty that Santorum’s supporters are much more excited — light years more excited — about their candidate than Romney’s supporters are about theirs.
Second, Washington has a vocal body of evangelical conservatives who will turn out voters. This includes Ken Hutcherson and Joseph Fuiten, both of whom have spoken out against the same-sex marriage bill.
The culture war has come to Washington. Both Washingtons, in fact.