On pages 11 and 14 of this issue Tom Hayden and Carol Burke recall the culture wars of the Vietnam era, which live on in the odd, enduring hatred of Jane Fonda by conservative vets. The image of “Hanoi Jane” was insinuated into the 2004 presidential race in the form of a doctored photo showing Fonda sharing the stage with John Kerry at an antiwar rally (inspiring our own, less subtle attempts at deception-via-Photoshop in this issue). The stunt was carried out by conservatives trying to discredit Kerry for his antiwar activity following combat in Vietnam, in part to offset George W.’s growing reputation as a slacker who shirked his National Guard duties. The Hanoi Jane smear plays on stereotypes of war opponents, then and now, as morally corrupt, weakening the nation’s martial will with their permissiveness and promiscuity. It is no coincidence that such images have surfaced now that the President has announced his support for a constitutional amendment defending the “sanctity of marriage” and as issues like abortion and religion loom large in the 2004 election.
If a new culture war has been joined, however, it’s taking place on an altered battlefield. Republicans learned the lessons of 1992, when Pat Buchanan’s declaration of a cultural and religious war turned off libertarians, minorities, suburban women and moderates. Thus in 2004, Karl Rove is aiming for a delicate balance between “compassionate conservatism” and appeals to Passion of the Christ-lovers. He’d like to build a coalition of evangelicals, traditional Catholics and Rugged-Cross Protestants in states like West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri and Ohio–without provoking distress in affluent, socially liberal suburbs.
Democrats are nonetheless right to charge that Bush is instigating a culture war to change the subject from the actual war, which is not going so well, not to mention the stumbling economy. Cultural issues are, of course, not just symbolic–gay rights and abortion rights have concrete, sometimes life-or-death significance for millions of people. But as George W. Bush and Karl Rove well know, they hold great symbolic value for the cultural right, and in the past such issues have helped distract Americans from their deepening credit card debt, rising healthcare costs and dwindling savings. Will that diversionary tactic work this time? Maybe not. Even some evangelicals are not convinced that a constitutional ban on gay marriage is a panacea for the country’s ills.
The Democrats face their own balancing act, wanting to be the party of tolerance yet fearful of a backlash should they appear too committed to a “radical” gay agenda (the fact that marriage is hardly a radical goal rarely comes up). Kerry has repeated his opposition to gay marriage while voicing his support for all other rights for gay couples. This rather confusing position might reflect Americans’ ambivalence better than Bush’s declaration that gay marriage is “an issue that requires clarity” (i.e., discrimination enshrined in the Constitution), but it invites criticism from those on both sides of the debate.
Kerry–and the Democratic Party–are better off emphasizing their opposition to discrimination and turning up the volume on issues most voters can agree on: job creation, healthcare reform and changes in tax and trade policy to favor the non-rich. And just as Rove will use the gay marriage debate to energize the base for Bush, so the Democrats should use it to energize the millions who believe deeply in equal rights. By appealing to these voters, and to all who share their values on such cultural issues as choice, civil liberties and individual freedom, Democrats can take the high road–and take the White House.