Democratic Wedge Issues
Republicans are out of step on issues like same sex marriage and medical marijuana.
“God, guns and gays” were the holy trinity of wedge issues in Karl Rove’s approach to electing George W. Bush. But the third issue on that list has been radically transformed as Americans rethink their views. Increasingly the edge of certain social issues may cut against Republicans, which could be a problem for Gov. Scott Walker in his reelection campaign.
Across America, state after state is embracing same-sex marriage. It’s now legal in 17 states, including three of Wisconsin’s four neighbors: Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota.
A recent Gallup Poll found a 52 percent to 43 percent majority favored legalizing same sex marriages, which echoed earlier findings by other polls.
Wisconsin residents seem to have similar views. The recent Marquette Law School poll found that 53 percent of state residents surveyed supported same-sex marriage, 24 percent favored civil unions and 19 percent said should be no legal recognition for same-sex unions. Just a year earlier a Marquette poll found that 44 percent favored same-sex marriage.
What’s happening, as state after state embraces same sex marriages, and as gay marriages get more public discussion and recognition, is they begin to seem normal. In 2003, a year before Bush’s reelection victory, just 33 percent of Americans supported same-sex marriages, while 58 percent opposed them. In ten years those numbers have nearly flip-flopped.
The other factor changing these surveys is the advent of the Millennials, among whom 70 percent support same-sex marriage. They made up just 9 percent of the adult population back in 2003. Today 27 percent of adults are Millennials.
Few governors are as out of step on this issue as Walker. He has declared that the state’s 2006 consitutional amendment banning same sex marriages is part of a “healthy balance” of LGBT rights because the state also has laws against employment discrimination. Needless to say, that leaves out tons of other rights that married couples have.
Wisconsin does have a domestic partner registry law, passed in 2009, which gives gay couples about “one-quarter” of the rights married people enjoy, says Katie Belanger, President and CEO of Fair Wisconsin, which advocates for gay rights. The three big rights it gave gay partners is the right of hospital visitation, the right to sick leave to help a loved one, and the right to make end-of-life decisions. But it left them without the right to adoption, to joint property, joint tax filings and many other rights.
Yet, in 2009, Wisconsin Family Action sued the state arguing that this law violates the ban on same sex marriages. Gov. Jim Doyle hired a lawyer to defend the law, but Walker has declined to do so, declaring he thinks it’s unconstitutional. Mary Burke, by contrast, has said she supports same sex marriage and opposes the 2006 ban on same sex marriages. There could hardly be a clearer contrast.
The marijuana issue is playing out in a similar fashion to gay rights. A recent Gallup Poll found that 58 percent of Americans support legalizing marijuana, up from 12 percent in 1969. But support has jumped 10 percentage points since a year ago, the poll found, with a very high percentage of independents supporting legalization. “Whatever the reasons for Americans’ greater acceptance of marijuana, it is likely that this momentum will spur further legalization efforts across the United States,” the pollster predicted.
This softening of opposition to pot has been even more dramatic when it comes to medical marijuana. By 2011 fully 77 percent of Americans supported medical marijuana and only 17 percent opposed it, a CBS poll found. A 2013 Fox News Poll found 85 percent of voters favored medical marijuana.
By now, 20 states and DC have legalized medical marijuana, including the neighboring states of Illinois and Michigan, and two states, Colorado and Washington, have legalized recreational marijuana. Once again, as state after state passes such laws, the use of marijuana seems more normal. The Huffington Post poll found that 64 percent of Americans expect more states to legalize marijuana by the end of the year
And once again the support for such a change is highest among Millennials, at 65 percent.
In Wisconsin, a bill to legalize medical marijuana failed in 2009 after a dramatic public showdown between state senators Leah Vukmir (R-Wauwatosa) and Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton). But there is no evidence Wisconsin is immune to the nation’s transformation of views on pot.
The Marquette poll found that legalization of marijuana is supported by 50 percent and opposed by 45 percent. It did not ask about medical marijuana, but a Chamberlain Research Consultants Poll in 2002 found that 80 percent of state residents favored a law “to allow seriously ill or terminally ill patents to use medical marijuana if supported by their physician.”
In 2012, the Wisconsin Medical Society changed its position of actively opposing medical marijuana to match the view of the American Medical Society.
In his 2010 campaign for governor, Walker said he opposed the legalization of medical marijuana. Burke, when interviewed by a Madison radio station in November, said she was open to legalizing its medical use. “We have many people suffering from really debilitating diseases and they’re not able to get the type of pharmaceuticals that help them deal with that,” she said. “And I think that if medical marijuana does that… we have to look at making that accessible.”
For conservative talk radio hosts like Charlie Sykes, there is no more dreaded policy change than a return to the Fairness Doctrine, which required stations to balance their coverage of the news. Perhaps no one has benefited more from its abandonment than Roger Ailes, the man who created Fox News. A new biography of Ailes by Gabriel Sherman has created plenty of controversy with Ailes working hard to discredit it. Lloyd Grove of The Daily Beast offers a speed reading version of the book’s 25 juiciest revelations.
But two other writers offers smart essays that also consider Ailes’ impact on politics with the aggressively right-wing Fox station. David Carr of the New York Times concludes ironically that Ailes and Fox may have helped relect Barack Obama. And Jill Lepore of the New Yorker offers a fascinating comparison between Ailes and 20th century media tycoon William Randolph Hearst, questioning how much policy impact either man had.
“Sherman sees Ailes as a kingmaker, which isn’t entirely convincing,” Lepore writes. “Between 1952 and 1988, an era marked by the Fairness Doctrine (and, according to conservatives, a liberal media), Republicans won seven out of ten Presidential elections. Between 1988 and 2012, during the ascendancy of conservative media, Republicans won only three out of seven Presidential elections.” And one of those, in 2000, was actually a victory in the popular vote for the Democrat.
Talk radio and Fox News relentlessly reinforce a right-wing message that’s intended to help Republicans but may actually become a trap for them. Party members were thus convinced that Mitt Romney would win in 2012, though all the polls pointed in the opposite direction. (Sykes predicted Romney would win.) It’s hard to fashion a winning strategy to succeed in the real world when you’re immersed in a conservative echo chamber that constantly repeats and reinforces only certain, pre-cleared views of reality.