This whole article is going to be just sheer speculation on my part, I'm going to admit that up front. But I can't help but wonder if we're truly seeing a few tried-and-true "wedge" issues -- that Republicans have long relied upon -- losing their edge. Public opinion seems to be blunting their effectiveness at doing what wedge issues are usually used for: driving voters apart, and (hopefully) into your party's camp. The two issues are gay marriage and gun control (specifically, background checks).
Wedge issues come and go in American politics. Sometimes they make a reappearance, but usually on the fringes (for example, the gold standard -- something that decided elections a century ago but is now the lone province of libertarian types). The public tends to get caught up in the emotionalism of the moment, but then usually doesn't notice when these issues fade away. There's not a whole lot of people calling for a constitutional amendment banning burning American flags these days, but 20 or 30 years ago it was indeed (if you'll forgive the pun) a hot topic. It did exactly what Republicans designed it to do -- split Democrats and raise a big ruckus where there had been none.
Around the same time period, gay rights were also being used as wedge issues to divide Democrats. At the time, full and equal rights for gays up to and including marriage was such a risky position that few Democrats stood for it. Republicans capitalized on the public's squeamishness, especially in rural states where Democrats were vulnerable. Most Democrats flailed around looking for some acceptable middle-of-the-road stance, which led to such things as supporting civil unions (but not gay marriage) and "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
The issue was a wonderful wedge for the Republicans to wield, and they drove their advantage as hard as they could -- passing laws like the Defense Of Marriage Act, while daring Democrats to vote against it, and putting "one man/one woman" initiatives on the ballot in every state they possibly could. This worked like a charm, for a while. It caused Democrats to scurry around looking for safe ground, while Republicans stood firmly on an absolutist position.
These days, that solid ground previously under Republican feet is looking pretty shaky. They've locked themselves in, and the only way they're now going to escape the issue turning and biting them electorally is if it just quietly goes away. The question is whether Republican politicians will allow that to happen or not.
If the Supreme Court tosses out DOMA, it will be a large signal that at some point in the near future they're going to rule that gay marriage is an unalienable right and overturn all state laws against it. That's a pretty big "if," but bear with me (I warned you I'd be speculating). Republicans will see this coming, and they can choose to either fight a losing battle to the last man and woman (so to speak), or they can grumble about it a bit and move on.
How long this process takes is really an open question. While national surveys show that gay marriage is now accepted and supported by a clear majority of the public, that's on a national level. State-by-state, the numbers are a bit more varied. And there are still plenty of states where a clear majority disapproves of gay marriage. Republicans represent many of these states and districts in Congress. They know that just throwing in the towel on gay marriage isn't going to win them votes -- it'll lose them votes. But the "safe" districts and states are going to shrink in numbers, over time. If a Supreme Court decision comes down against them, they'll know that the only remaining course of action is to pass a "one woman/one man" constitutional amendment. This is likely impossible, given the requirements, but it may not stop them from trying one last gasp with this wedge issue.
The more interesting movement right now is on the Democratic side, though. Gay marriage acceptance has been growing so fast it is easy to forget that up until a few months ago, most Democratic politicians were scared to offer their open support for it. Neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama supported it in 2008, although both have since "evolved" on the matter. They're not alone. A whole lot of evolution has been going on among Democrats in office or eyeing a future office. Most of it since the 2012 elections, in fact.
What this means is that for the first time the wedge is going to be tested. We're going to see if the wedge issue can cut the other way. Indications are that it most certainly can, after gay marriage actually won as a ballot initiative in more than one state -- for the first time ever. But, once again, acceptance of gay marriage is nowhere near universal. It differs geographically and demographically.
The 2014 and 2016 elections are going to be the first tests of whether supporting gay marriage can actually help politicians at the ballot box, in many states and districts across the country. My guess is that it will, for most Democrats. There may be a few places where it becomes an issue Republicans can still exploit, but in most places Democrats have a chance of winning it'll likely be the Republican candidate whose position on gay marriage is going to hurt him or her with the voters. You can't help but feel a little sorry for Republicans who have been using this successfully for decades now being faced with the fact that their tried-and-true way of campaigning is now going to hurt them.
The gun issue is a little more questionable, even though the polling numbers are much more overwhelmingly for background checks. After the assault rifle ban was passed in the 1990s, Republicans (and the NRA) very successfully used it as a big wedge issue, and some say that's how Republicans took control of Congress. It was probably more complicated than that, but there were indeed a few races in which it was a major issue, and the Democrat lost.
Initial polling seems to indicate that this wedge may have turned, too, though. Senators who voted against background checks are seeing their numbers drop, and senators who voted for background checks are seeing their numbers go up. Kelly Ayotte is the best example, perhaps because her state is pretty close to Connecticut. Her poll numbers showed a big drop after her vote, and she's faced some irate folks in recent town hall meetings, which always makes for good television. Campaign-style ads are already up in New Hampshire ripping into Ayotte for her vote, and also (paid for by the NRA) praising her for her vote.
The stunning thing is, she doesn't face re-election for three years.
Will she pay a price at the ballot box for her vote? Well, it's pretty early to say, even in the midst of rampant speculation like this. The voters are notoriously fickle, and they usually have a notoriously short attention span. Who knows how the issue will be polling next summer? Who knows if anyone will remember this vote, or even use it as a deciding matter in the ballot box?
It's a lot easier to see the arc of history bending on gay marriage than it is, so far, on even this modest gun control measure. Gun control advocates suffer from a political disadvantage, too. The pro-gun side is organized, feels incredibly strongly about their position, and is quite vocal in politics. Up until now, the gun control side has been mostly reactionary, rather disorganized, and doesn't command the political bankroll the other side does by a long shot. That, of course, was before Michael Bloomberg took up the cause. Maybe his group can turn things around a bit, who knows?
It would indeed be interesting to see this wedge issue turn. If politicians were scared to vote against modest gun control, it would create an entirely different political calculus in Washington, over time. Ever since the assault rifle ban, there have been quite a few Democrats who have been scared to vote for gun control, but if the wedge has turned, we might see some of that "evolution" going on among Democrats.
It's really too early to say, on the gun control issue. The initial signs certainly are positive, and they seem to be consistent, at least in the states polled (I don't think I've seen poll numbers for more than seven senators). As with any issue, there will be states which buck the trend no matter which way it goes. But it certainly is refreshing to even contemplate the possibility that this wedge may have, like gay marriage, lost its edge.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant