Obama and the culture war of the left

In a year of financial crisis and largely bloodless economic debate, three recent developments have once again made social issues relevant. How this happened is a reversal of a common misconception that cultural conservatives have kept the culture wars alive against the wishes of liberals, who are tired of the whole thing.

In that light, the ramifications of the past week are fascinating. One implication is for President Obama’s re-election. Facing a party united in distaste for him, and in ambivalence toward his possible Republican rivals, it seems counterintuitive for his party and his allies to re-ignite controversies that galvanize social conservatives.

First, the Obama administration mandated that every health provider pay for contraception, sterilization and abortions for those covered.

This issue fuses two major critiques of the Obama administration in one electorally potent combination. First, it illustrates the unfriendliness of the Obama administration toward diverse economic self-determination. In other words, we know better, and there’s one best way to do social and economic policy, as David Brooks wrote this week. Second, it illustrates an unwillingness to understand and empathize with the deeply held moral beliefs of a huge segment of the American population.

The Susan G. Komen kerfuffle is another example of how liberals fight the culture war under the cover of the media.

As The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has observed, Komen’s purpose in cutting off funding to Planned Parenthood was to funnel the relatively small amount of money for cancer screenings from Planned Parenthood to other organizations better equipped to serve Komen’s main function — fighting cancer. Other organizations do the same work without providing abortions, and critics have argued that Planned Parenthood’s mammogram and cancer screening services are subpar. In any event, this was a decision a private charitable organization can make for itself.

If abortion isn’t a moral issue to you, then so be it.

I’d argue you’re wrong — an unborn child is fundamentally, self-evidently and emphatically a living human being, separated from those of us privileged enough to have been born only by age and location. But to argue that liberal support of Planned Parenthood has nothing to do with abortion and is all about women’s health makes you either naïve or disingenuous.

Finally, another court has ruled that the will of the California people is invalid where the definition of marriage is concerned. While the court battle will continue, the timing of this decision reinforces a theme — that liberals like the democratic process until they lose, at which point they change the rules.

I’ve always thought that the next generation of cultural conservatives should think of political engagement as a great conversation between sides that assume the best of each other instead of as a battle to be joined.

What President Obama and his liberal allies are telling us is that they don’t see it that way. Maybe they never have.

It’s now possible that Obama and his allies have blundered into their own worst nightmare: A Republican Party united by opposition to the economic and social policies of the Obama administration and a coherent narrative about a president and a party that thinks it knows better than the American people.

Reach the columnist at wmunsil@asu.edu

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