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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Brownstein: Dems Now Strengthened by Wedge Issues

There was a time not so long ago, writes Ronald Brownstein in his National Journal post, “Why the Culture Wars Now Favor Democrats,” when Republicans thrived on the divisions the so-called wedge issues cause among Democrats. For decades, Democrats struggled with policies to address “crime and welfare to immigration and gay rights,” while Republicans reaped the benefits. As Browstein notes:

…Initially, wedge issues were mostly a Republican weapon. Tutored by political strategists such as Paul Weyrich and Lee Atwater, GOP leaders for years highlighted cultural and racially tinged disputes (such as abortion, school prayer, welfare, and affirmative action) that split Southern evangelicals and working-class Northern whites (particularly observant Catholics) from the Democratic coalition as if shearing an iceberg. The process peaked in the 1988 presidential race, when George H.W. Bush, at Atwater’s direction, used these cudgels to disqualify Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis as a liberal elitist “born in Harvard Yard’s boutique.”

Today, however, demographic convulsions and more relaxed attitudes among political moderates, along with increasing rigidity in the Republican party, have combined to flip the burden to the GOP:

In a mirror image, Democrats across these fronts are moving with uncommon confidence. In Congress, the party has overwhelmingly unified behind immigration reform and gay marriage and is only somewhat more divided on guns; in many blue states, Democrats are also pushing gun-control and gay-rights agendas. “Guns and gays, which we used to run away from, we’re now running on,” says Democratic strategist Tad Devine, a top aide in Dukakis’s 1988 campaign. If congressional Republicans block President Obama on immigration or expanded background checks, the 2016 Democratic nominee likely will revive–and benefit from–those causes.
Republicans gained from wedge issues when the blue-collar whites they were aimed at constituted a majority of voters. But the growing number of nonwhite or religiously unaffiliated voters and the socially liberal tendencies of the rising millennial generation have reversed the equation. At the presidential level, these noneconomic issues are mostly benefiting Democrats, not so much by dividing Republicans as by unifying the Democratic coalition of minorities, millennials, and college-educated whites, especially women.

Although some wedge issues, like immigration and gun control remain unsettled, looking towards the future, it’s hard to see how Democrats can lose their current edge with culture wars wedge issues — at least in the short run.

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