In the Mosque Debate, Social Politics Rears Its Ugly Head

The conservative base has had a good thing going this year, no thanks to social politics.

Fiscal issues have dominated the election cycle, with opponents of President Obama mobilized around deficit spending, the stimulus, and health care, while the poor state of the economy has weighed heavily against incumbents. An August 6-10 CNN/Opinion research poll showed the economy, unemployment, and the federal budget deficit to be the top three voter concerns heading into the midterms.

But the Ground Zero mosque has entered the fray and entered it heavily, taking up blocks of cable news time and becoming an issue in contested midterm elections.

At Sharron Angle's prodding, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid took a stance yesterday. David Vitter has pressed his Democratic opponent on the mosque. In Florida, independent Charlie Crist agrees with Obama, Democrat Jeff Greene decidedly doesn't, and Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott called the president "cowardly." Sen. John Cornyn, who chairs the Republican Party's Senate campaign arm, said on "Fox News Sunday" that he thinks the mosque is a local issue, but admitted when pressed that it's become a campaign matter to some extent:

BAIER: So yes, it becomes an election issue?

CORNYN: I think -- I think whether you're connected with people, whether you're listening or whether you're lecturing to them, I think this is sort of the dichotomy that people sense, that they're being lectured to, not listened to, and I think that's the reason why a lot of people are very upset with Washington. So I think in that -- to that extent, yes.

The odd thing about the mosque debate is that a social issue issue has cropped up in an election cycle that has been largely devoid of them. Gay marriage has occupied some attention, but politicians haven't felt compelled to weigh in. And regardless, the political lines on gay marriage have already been drawn; it hasn't shown the same capacity to envelop the nation in political debate. California's marijuana legalization campaign hasn't grabbed the nation's attention in the same way, either. In the CNN poll referenced above, gay marriage and abortion ranked 13th and 14th out of the 15 issues CNN listed to respondents.

Republicans have blamed Obama for nationalizing the mosque as an issue. "That's what tends to happen when the president weighs in," one Republican campaign strategist pointed out to me earlier today, while Congressman Kevin McCarthy, who chairs the recruitment division of the GOP's House campaign committee, criticized the president on CNN's "State of the Union" this past weekend for bringing the mosque up at all. Others, meanwhile, have blamed Republicans for demagoguing it.

GOP candidates may have some advantage in this issue: 68% oppose "this plan" to build the mosque near the site of the former World Trade Center, according to another CNN poll released last week. Emphasis on "plan": pollsters did not ask about the right to build the mosque, or whether the city should stop it. 29% favored it.

Conventional wisdom has posited that conservatives should stay away from social issues this election cycle--that the base can capitalize on Tea Party energy by rallying around fiscal issues--but there appears to be unity over the mosque question.

As Congressman McCarthy noted, the election will not be about the mosque: it will be about jobs. It's possible that the mosque issue will evaporate over the next week or so. Still, it's odd that something as socially heated, as wrapped up in religious ideology, 9/11, and, at times, notions of civilizational conflict, as the Ground Zero mosque has temporarily become the political issue of the day.