Opinion

Why both liberals and conservatives might want to go easy on the social issues

Mark Udall's disastrous, one-note campaign failed to learn from Todd Akin's mistakes

The conventional wisdom surrounding social issues in politics tends to swing between extremes. In 1992, the conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer declared, "The great abortion debate is over." Lest there be any doubt about who won, he added, "The anti-abortion forces have been routed."

A mere two years later, amidst the great Republican sweep of 1994, not a single anti-abortion incumbent was defeated by a pro-abortion rights challenger. Both houses of Congress were to be led by Republican abortion foes.

Ten years later, Republicans were said to have won the 2004 elections on the strength of values voters. And once again, it took only two years for that narrative to unravel. After the Democrats won big in 2006, there was a new rush to proclaim social issues the problem — especially among Republicans who weren't that socially conservative themselves.

So it's not surprising that after Todd Akin and "legitimate rape" were followed by Republican losses in 2012, the "war on women" was all the rage. And now that Wendy Davis and Mark "Uterus" Udall have gone down to defeat, that war is over.

The truth about social issues is more complicated. And much of the time it isn't about the issues themselves, but whether a party or candidate seems obsessive and strident.

For example, Todd Akin's position on abortion didn't cost him his Senate race. His rhetoric about abortion, and particularly rape, did. Ditto Richard Mourdock of Indiana, who blundered after Akin had already made headlines.

Similarly, not all social liberalism is created equal. The same Colorado voters who were unimpressed by Sen. Mark Udall's nonstop talk about abortion and contraception — denounced as "the worst campaign" in America by one Democratic donor — defeated an anti-abortion fetal "personhood" amendment by a 2-to-1 margin.

Social issues have become proxies for much broader political classifications. The red state-blue state dichotomy loosely captures one group that is religious, traditional, and gun-friendly and another that is secular, cosmopolitan, and most likely to see guns in the movies or the 10 o'clock news.

But large numbers of people don't have systematic views on social issues (or most other contentious political topics, for that matter). Social liberals can win these voters with a "live and let live" appeal. Social conservatives can sometimes persuade them that ACLU-style fanatics are raising a fuss over harmless traditions, like Christmas trees in the town square.

Indeed, most people who aren't committed social conservatives or liberals don't want to be made to think about abortion, which is an unpleasant topic no matter how you feel about its legality. To a lesser extent, they may be uncomfortable talking about sexual matters in the public sphere. They certainly don't like anyone on the left or right haranguing them about these things.

These voters are most likely to react hostilely when one candidate's focus on social issues dominates the airwaves to the virtual exclusion of other issues.

That was essentially The Denver Post editorial page's complaint with Udall, who was dinged for his "obnoxious one-issue campaign." And it was the practical effect Akin had on his campaign in 2012.

It isn't an intrinsic problem with social conservatism or liberalism. In the culture war, a subset of voters is going to punish the candidate they perceive to be the aggressor.

Wendy Davis was certainly the aggressor in Texas. She burst on to the national scene defending late-term abortions, which, media accolades aside, are not very popular even among women. She appeared to accuse her Republican opponent of wanting to ban interracial marriages, which as it happens would make his own marriage illegal.

It's not surprising, then, that this pitch didn't win over a sufficient number of voters. Davis lost women and Latino men.

Udall, running in a more socially liberal state, did better. But he basically fought Republican Cory Gardner to a draw among independent women.

That's not to say that the "war on women" couldn't have worked against a candidate less like Gardner, who was emphasizing his support for over-the-counter birth control pill sales, and more like Akin.

Similarly, there were lines of criticism Texas Republicans advanced against Davis that wouldn't have worked against a Democrat who had a winning message on jobs or education.

But how and when you talk about social issues matters as much as what you say.

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