WEST HOLLYWOOD — Barack Obama is pulling a page from Karl Rove's tactical playbook: when things aren't going so well, distract the masses with a culture war. Just because the Obama White House doesn't agree with its predecessors doesn't mean they cannot employ the Bush Administration's tactics.
Unlike Bill Clinton, who tried to triangulate the culture war as president, bringing us Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell, school uniforms and the Defense of Marriage Act, President Obama is betting, like Rove, that the best route to political success is to divide and conquer the public with a series of wedge issues. Some could even accuse Obama of using the dirtiest of Republican tricks to take our minds off an acceleratingly worsening economy.
While Bill Clinton unsuccessfully tried to placate social conservatives while pursuing universal healthcare and higher taxes, the Republican Party, was perfecting the use of hot-button wedge issues to divide voters and drive voter turnout among those who would most likely support their candidates. In 1994, California Republicans rode two wedge-issue ballot initiatives - Three Strikes and the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 - to their last major statewide victories.
The lesson Republicans thought they learned from that election was that they could divide and conquer the electorate by advocating issues on which the majority of voters agreed with them. But ever since the great victories of 1994, the California Republican Party has gone from a governing party to a group that can barely govern itself, let alone help get its members elected to public office.
Today, when Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner failed to live up to the hype and deliver a plan to fix the banking system, the White House created the Limbaugh Petard - an attempt to drive a wedge between the newly elected leadership of the Republican National Committee, Chairman Michael Steele, and the nation's foremost "conservative" talk show host.
When his hypocrisy on earmarks in the omnibus spending bill was revealed and job losses accelerated, President Obama trotted out the social issues, ending his predecessor's ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.
In the short term, lifting the embryonic stem-cell ban sounds like good politics. The other side - mostly motivated by their opposition to abortion - seems out of touch and inarticulate. Opponents of embryonic stem-cell research talk about the destruction of embryos, and speak of a "culture of death," using the same language they use to oppose abortion. But they lose the argument with the American public over this issue because of the hope - much of it false - that sick people have for the process of stem cell research and its ability to cure everything from cancer to the common cold.
Obama knows how people react to the hope of science and to him, this issue is a winner. But in the long run, will becoming a cultural warrior hurt the President?
There's two sides in a culture war and the majority of the American public falls with one or the other some of the time but not all of the time. So the most effective cultural warrior picks his battles. And rather than find common ground on cultural issues and bring America together, Obama is fanning the flames of the culture war in the territory where he has a strategic advantage.
As California contemplates a series of state-wide elections, the divide-and-conquer strategy remains a tactic Republicans hope will work again, as they try to convert African-American and Latino voters who supported the elimination of marriage rights for same-sex couples the GOP. It won't work for them and this strategy won't work for Obama, either.
Americans are struggling to get by. Banks aren't lending money, even to those who still have a job. Americans want real solutions, not a renewed culture war.
If President Obama intends to distract America out of this recession, come 2012, he may end up finding himself a beneficiary of the extended unemployment benefits he made law. But if he becomes a cultural peacemaker, like Bill Clinton, then even the worst depression may not be able to bring down Barack Obama.
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