Wedges Failing to Bite

Wedge issues, by definition, create conflict. Democrats contend that that is why Republicans tried to force a Senate vote last week on a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. "I find it really intolerable that it's coming up now," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. "Everyone knows that it doesn't have the votes to be placed before the American people. It's there only to create a major conflict."

In the end, the motion to shut off debate garnered just 48 votes—far short of the necessary 60 to bring it to a vote, and even farther short of the 67 votes needed to pass the amendment. The measure didn't even get a simple majority. Fifty senators voted against it. The two who were absent—Democrats John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina—were on record opposing the amendment, although both said they would vote only on the amendment itself rather than cast procedural votes that Republicans could try to use against them.

President Bush has been showcasing his support for the amendment, making it the subject of his weekly radio address on July 10, for example. And in Marquette, Mich., the day before the Senate vote, Bush said, "We stand for institutions like marriage and the family, which are the foundations of our society." He also highlighted his opposition to abortion rights, saying, "We stand for a culture of life, in which every person matters and every person counts." Was Bush deliberately trying to create conflict? Of course he was. "On these positions that so many Americans share, my opponent is on the other side," he declared in Marquette.

Republicans insist that it's the courts that have put same-sex marriage on the agenda. "Look, there's no other way to solve this problem," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. Democrats don't buy it. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said, "This debate is about politics, an attempt to drive a wedge between one group of citizens and the rest of the country, solely for partisan advantage."

Asked in this month's Gallup Poll to name the most important problems facing the country, Americans put three issues at the top of the list: the economy and jobs (26 percent), Iraq (26 percent), and terrorism (15 percent). No other issue reached double digits. Six percent mentioned moral values. Two percent thought immigration was a top issue. The environment and gay rights barely registered, at 1 percent each. Abortion and guns were even lower.

What's conspicuous about wedge issues is the fact that very few voters are interested in them. Nevertheless, in 1988, a conservative group used the mention of murderer Willie Horton to drive Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis's numbers down. "Dukakis not only opposes the death penalty," the narrator said ominously in a television ad sponsored by the National Security PAC, "he allowed first-degree murderers to have weekend passes from prison. One kidnapped and stabbed a Maryland man and raped his fiancée." The ad worked.

Republicans accuse Democrats of using stem-cell research as a wedge issue. Ron Reagan, son of the late president, is set to speak to the Democratic convention on the topic, presumably with the approval of his mother. "This administration is pandering to the most ignorant segment of our society for votes and throwing up roadblocks to this research," Reagan said recently, adding, "It's absolutely shameful." Bush's opposition to stem-cell research, like Dukakis's support of a prison-furlough program, seems to be a position taken for ideological reasons in defiance of common sense.

Republicans think President Clinton used Medicare as a wedge issue to frighten seniors in 1996. "We will balance the budget," Clinton told the 1996 Democratic convention. "We will do it in a way that preserves Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment." Republicans called Clinton's approach "Mediscare." But it worked. Florida and Arizona, states with large numbers of retirees, switched to the Democratic column in 1996.

This year, however, wedge issues don't seem to be having the same impact. Conservatives are dismayed by the absence of any apparent voter alarm over same-sex marriages. The movement for a constitutional amendment is meeting with widespread apathy.

This year is different, in terms of wedge issues, because voters are unusually energized. At this point in the campaign four years ago, just 45 percent of voters said they had given a lot of thought to the race between George W. Bush and Al Gore. This year, a whopping 66 percent say they have given the election a lot of thought.

At this point in 1988, when Dukakis was running, only 20 percent of the voters said they were paying a lot of attention. In 2000, that number was 26 percent. Now, it's 43 percent—four months before Election Day. That's a very high level of engagement.

Voters see big issues at stake this year. And big issues tend to crowd out smaller ones.

The voters are not only intensely interested. They're intensely divided. In 2000, 25 percent of voters said there was some chance they would change their minds. This year, that number has fallen by nearly half. Only 13 percent say they might switch sides. Wedge issues, such as same-sex marriage, don't seem to be having much impact this year, because voters are so strongly committed to their choices in the presidential campaign. It's hard to wedge them loose.