How the Culture War Was “Lost”

At Politico Magazine, veteran liberal controversialist Bill Scher, who’s now with the Campaign for America’s Future, chooses last week’s Supreme Court decision-not-to-decide ruling on marriage equality as a Waterloo Moment for the conservative side of the culture war first announced by Pat Buchanan at the 1992 Republican National Convention. So he conducts a brisk review of the strategic mistakes GOPers have made in very recent years.

I think he’s spot on in suggesting that a shift in focus from late-term to early-term abortions–accompanied by an unwelcome focus on birth control methods theologically deemed as “abortifacients”–has at least temporarily undone what was beginning to look like a persistent Republican advantage on reproductive rights issues.

But the “why” is a different matter. Scher thinks it was mainly a matter of hubris, or in the case of the suicidal battle against contraception, of Obama-hatred getting out of control. I’d say it was entirely predictable. So long as most abortions (and the overwhelming majority occur during the first two trimesters of pregnancy) remained legal, the ability of GOPers to placate the antichoice faction of their party with late-term abortion restrictions was always time-limited. And so long as one big group of antichoicers–“traditionalist” Catholics–is formally opposed to contraception on dogmatic grounds, while another–conservative evangelicals–appears immersed in a panic over contemporary standards of sexual morality, there will be a vocal if heavily outnumbered constituency for restrictions on contraception.

I’d also argue it is grossly premature to declare winners and losers on reproductive issues. The “medical conditions” approach to abortion restrictions that has swept through Republican-controlled state legislatures since 2010 combines the deceptive tactics of bans on late-term abortions with provisions that really can generally reduce access to abortions–and that may very well pass muster with the U.S. Supreme Court. And that raises the very strong possibility that the current Court or certainly one in which the conservative majority has been augmented by a Republican president elected in 2016 will change the constitutional scheme altogether.

As for same-sex marriage, it’s hard to fault Republicans for failing to anticipate the speed with which public opinion changed during the last decade. Most national Democrats, after all, were overtaken by events as well. Scher argues a pro-civil-unions position might have placated religious conservatives without labeling Republicans as clueless and homophobic among milennials. In one respect, that may be true, since the current trajectory among conservative religious denominations is to separate civil from religious ceremonies altogether. But it was far earlier for less-reactionary Republicans to check the box of support for “traditional marriage” and then talk about something else, which is where the entire GOP seems to be at present.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.