Op-Ed: Social Issues Are Used by Both Parties as Distractions

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Every Thursday our newspaper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, publishes a column by local writer Colleen Carroll Campbell, a traditionalist Catholic who also hosts a program on the Catholic television network EWTN.

While I often find her concerns valid, I also don’t wish to oversimplify Ms. Campbell’s writings, but they do often come off as a list of reasons why Catholics should vote Republican.

Her recent Thursday column, which can be read here, was published in the print edition with the subtitle, “Romney’s VP choice brings social issues to the forefront.”

A year in which the economy stagnated was also the year of Sandra Fluke, contraceptive mandates, gay marriage, and the Chicken Wars. And ironically enough, it may not be the economy, Stupid, that decides the election. It may just be whose base of supporters are more energized by their particular issues, because in a sense, social issues have been at the forefront for months.

Like many of her fellow conservative commentators, Campbell is dazzled by the vice presidential selection of Paul Ryan, himself a practicing Catholic, only this time it’s specifically related to the doctrinal heft it gives the GOP ticket:

Unlike Biden, who repeatedly earned earned perfect scores from NARAL as a senator and nudged Obama onto the gay marriage bandwagon this spring, Ryan has remained true to his Catholic faith on the moral issues that the church labels non-negotiable, including defense of the right to life and traditional marriage. Ryan’s pro-life, pro-family stands will not endear him to all Catholics. But for those who take their church’s hierarchy of values seriously, Romney’s surprising choice may prove to be a winner.

There has been much ink spilled over how much positive effect Ryan has on the Republican ticket. Can a polarizing figure appeal to independents and undecided voters? Here’s another: If social issues are a deciding factor in one’s vote, does Ryan bring any additional voters that weren’t otherwise going to vote for Romney?

Barack Obama has disappointed his liberal base on taxes and civil liberties, so he has predictably thrown them political bones by repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and giving symbolic support for gay marriage. Like Bush in 2004, Obama in 2012 doesn’t have a range of popular accomplishments on which to run, so he is counting on rallying his base and hoping enough undecided voters are more afraid of the other side than theirs.

The Republicans have a presidential ticket this year that is not defined by its stances on social issues. Romney has a contorted history on abortion and gay rights and Ryan, whose faith became an issue earlier this year vis-a-vis his controversial budget, has checked all the correct social issue boxes. If Ryan becomes an object of the Religious Right, or in his case political Catholicism, it is more of an accident of history than because he is an active figure in the culture wars.

Social issues are doubtlessly galvanizing. Many prominent social conservatives believed, and with good reason, that it was the vaguely defined “moral values” that dragged George W. Bush to reelection in 2004. But social issues are also distracting.

Neither party has much incentive to really address the big social issues like gay marriage or abortion. They are too valuable to relinquish.

But most of all they are a convenient distraction to keep the herds aligned with the pack and to keep people talking about something besides the economy and the situation in the world.