No matter how much he may try to stretch himself into a “moderate” shape Nevada Senator Dean Heller is aligned squarely with the radical right when it comes to women’s health. The U.S. Senate can’t seem to address major items like climate change, infrastructure, and the voting rights act, but the Republican controlled body can certainly spend time on women’s bodies. Witness: H.R. 36, and the vote thereon. [rc268]
H.R. 36 is the product of the House conservatives’ brain-flatulence and emphatic embrace of pseudo-scientific items like a “pain capable” fetus, in which abortions would be banned after twenty weeks. What’s the science?
“Published research generally supports an experience of pain being possible only later in gestation than 20 weeks. A synthesis of available evidence was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2005 by experts from the University of California, San Francisco, and elsewhere, and their report concluded: “Evidence regarding the capacity for fetal pain is limited but indicates that fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester.” The third trimester begins at 27 to 28 weeks from conception.” [FactCheck]
There are a couple of things to notice in the summary above. First, “evidence regarding the capacity for fetal pain is limited,” or, restated, there is limited evidence (read: little) that the fetus is able to perceive pain. Secondly, if we accept the “limited’ evidence, then the perception is unlikely until 27-28 weeks after conception. However, nothing scientific stopped Senator Dean Heller from voting to bring H.R. 36 up for a vote. The motion to break cloture failed.
Nevada’s other Senator, Harry Reid, offered the following summation of GOP efforts:
“It is said that you cannot make the same mistake twice. The second time you make it, it’s a choice. On every issue imaginable Republicans are choosing to employ the same failed strategy. Over and over again, they drag Congress and the American people through votes that are publicity stunts designed to boost their conservative records.
Today we stand in the midst of yet another Republican show-vote designed to honor the political wish list of extremists. Once again, Republicans have decided to place women’s health at the center of their ideological campaign. We’ve seen this tactic before. It doesn’t work. Americans are tired of Republican attacks on women’s health.”
And yes, the bill is going nowhere, and the vote was a waste of time. However, it does appear indicative of a Republican strategy in this Constant Campaign season.
Enter The Wedgies
For the sake of argument, let’s define a wedge issue as a social or cultural topic introduced into a campaign which seeks to attract and galvanize persuadable voters who might otherwise focus on economic or other major issues. There’s nothing particularly new about this technique. We could start almost anywhere, but 1968 seems as good a place as any, as an election into which two divisive issues were raised: “Public Order,” and “busing.” The former sought to brand Democrats as the party of chaos (Chicago civil unrest) and the party supporting “forced integration” for which “busing” was the stand-in. The busing (race) issue morphed into “States Rights” and “welfare queens” (race) during the 1980 campaign, which was, in turn, revised into the “Affirmative Action” (race) issue in 1996. The “gay marriage wedge issue” was used to good effect in the 2004 election season.
Clinging to the Wedgies
While wedge issues are extremely helpful during primary elections, their utility may diminish during general elections depending on the level of voter turnout. The danger of the wedge strategy is that it may be viewed as what is on offer from a party which has very little else to publicize to a national audience. The second danger inherent in the wedge strategy is that the issue itself may become marginalized and less effective in national elections.
It’s a useful exercise during any campaign season to take a step away from the publicity attached to single issues or single candidates and see what the polling says about national priorities. For example, the July 28, 2015 polling done by Quinnipiac University shows registered voters placing the highest priority on the economy and jobs (37%), health care (13%), terrorism (12%), and foreign policy (9%). Immigration (9%), Climate Change (6%), federal deficit (6%), taxes (3%) rounded out the polling. Those social and cultural issues garner about 2% to 3% in other polling. [TPP]
Note that of the contemporary wedge issues only immigration is seen as a major national priority (9%) and the polls don’t indicate the perspective of the voters in terms of either passing comprehensive immigration policy reform, or on the other hand, a policy of mass deportation. Gay marriage and abortion barely register with a majority of American voters.
Using gay marriage as a wedge issue appears to be one of those issues whose time has come and gone. Gay marriage might have been a potent wedge issue in 1996 when only 27% of the population thought those marriages should be valid, however its luster faded by 2015 when approximately 60% of the American public agreed that gay marriages should be legal. [Gallup] The fact that only the most radical of the Republican Party’s presidential candidates sought to exploit the issue of the Kentucky county clerk leads to the conclusion that this issue has also been marginalized.
The next available wedge issue for social conservatives is abortion, and it appears to be moving center stage for its close up in the 2015 primary season. The priority given to the abortion issue by the GOP has been explained thusly:
“The answer lies in the Republican Party’s shift to the right. A decade ago, between 30 and 40 percent of Republicans identified as pro-choice. This May, (2012) that number was a scant 22 percent. It’s hard to know whether that’s the result of Republicans changing their minds about abortion, or pro-choice respondents ceasing to identify as Republicans. But the result is the same: The party is increasingly uniform in its opposition to abortion.” [AmProsp]
This might help to explain why H.R. 36 (and other similar legislation) is perceived as a cohesive issue for Republicans and why Senator Heller and others have attached themselves to it. Trends in voter affiliation may support the thesis that some are ceasing to identify as Republicans since polling was done in 2003. As of 2014 32% responded as Democrats, 39% as Independents, and 23% as Republicans; a loss of 7% in self-identification with the GOP since 2003. [PRC] If the trend continues, we might reasonably conclude that the fixation in the GOP with what appears to be a wedge issue of limited utility could have serious consequences for that party in upcoming national elections.
Given the Republican Party’s march to the right, the willingness of its national leadership to adopt a wedge issue like abortion, and the continual emphasis placed on the topic by ultra-conservatives, probably means we will see more publicity about Planned Parenthood, more non-scientific legislation, and more lock step votes such as that of Senator Heller in the U.S. Senate. And it’s still over 400 days until the next national election.
Recommended/Reference: N. Coca, “Wedge Issues: A 2008 Historical Preview,” NithinCoca, January 2008. D.S. Hillygus, T.G. Shields, “The Persuadable Voter: Wedge Issues in Presidential Campaigns, Princeton University Press, 2009. K. Walsh, “Wedge Issues Take Center Stage in 2016 Race,” USNWR, April 2015. Sen. Harry Reid, “Republican Attacks on Women…” Press Release, September 2015. D. Townshend, “Abortion: The New Wedge Issue,” American Prospect, August 2012. Pew Research Center, “Trends in Party Affiliation,” April 2015. The Polling Report, “Problems and Priorities,” July 2015.