Real wars have given way to culture wars in US campaign debate

September 12th, 2008 - 11:21 am ICT by IANS  

Sarah PalinSan Francisco, Sep 12 (DPA) The United States might be fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but back on home soil, another kind of war is heating up as the country counts down to the Nov 4 elections.Since Republican presidential candidate John McCain chose as his running mate the gun-toting, deeply conservative and devoutly Christian mother of five, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, the country has become embroiled in a resurgence of the culture wars that dominated US politics during the 1990s.

At that time, then-Republican candidate Pat Buchanan addressed his party with these famous words: “There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.”

The culture wars pitted conservative evangelical Republican voters against centre-left Democrats on issues such as abortion, feminism, gay rights, women in the military, sex education and creationism versus evolution - issues that Buchanan said in 1992 constituted public morality.

In reality, the culture wars date back to the 1960s and were certainly in play later in the 1990s as the newly dominant Republicans in Congress tried to remove Democratic president Bill Clinton from office.

But while the same conservative constituency gave President George W. Bush two terms in office, the decibel level on cultural issues faded as the nation came under terrorist attack in 2001 and waged two wars on foreign soil.

Through the long primary season and the summer this year, voters were mainly concerned about the declining economy and the need for affordable health insurance and medical care and showed waning confidence in Bush and the Republicans over the course of events in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But that was before McCain brought Palin on board - a move that has re-energised the Republicans and blown the lid off what had been a fairly civilised, if closely-fought, campaign.

Suddenly Democratic candidate Barack Obama was “elitist” and out of touch with mainstream America.

And the election battle was not a debate over the issues that threaten the country but a battle between small-town provincials and big-city sophisticates, working-class whites and well-educated “liberals”, political outsiders and Washington power mongers. It also played on the often unspoken doubts that many Americans have about electing a black man to be president.

“They say it’s about ‘character’, but that’s just a euphemism,” political science professor Sheri Parris said. “The Republicans know how to push the right buttons in an electorate that remains deeply conservative. It’s the way they win elections.”

Although there are always two sides to every war, political observers are more or less unanimous that the verbal sniping was started by the McCain campaign as polls showed the US electorate was deeply dissatisfied with the policies of the Republican administration but still unsure about the readiness of Obama, a young, first-term senator, to take on the most powerful job on the planet.

The Republican convention last week showcased speaker after speaker in sarcastic and caustic attacks on Obama, led by the party’s new superstar, the self-styled “pit bull in lipstick”, Palin, who poked fun at Obama’s experience as a community organiser.

The tactic appeared to have caught the cerebral Obama off-guard. If, on one hand, he attempts to stick to campaign issues, he appears to be ducking the fight while, on the other, if he snipes back, he is usually outgunned by a team of Republican operatives with lots of experience in political trench warfare.

That was the case Wednesday when he used a phrase that even McCain has used on occasion to describe the Republican nominee’s promises of change as putting “lipstick on a pig”, prompting outraged cries of protest from his opponents that it was a sexist remark aimed at Palin.

“The idea that there is vast war over the moral and spiritual compass of the nation is a dramatic narrative, and it has dominated popular political analysis for nearly two decades,” noted political columnist Dick Meyer in the Los Angeles Times.

“It makes for potent, inflammatory political commercials. It just doesn’t have the added virtue of being true.”

Until Palin took the spotlight, the presidential campaign had been about national security and the economy, “but now we see the culture wars back with her appointment”, said Michael Cromartie, director of the evangelical studies programme at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.

So far, the tactic seemed to be working spectacularly well for McCain, 72, as Obama, 44, struggles to find a message to beat back the new politics of division. Polls showed McCain leading the race nationally for almost the first time.

But despite McCain’s exhortations of “country first”, the big loser could be the country’s main strategic goals as his tactics divert attention from the real issues, noted Roger Cohen, the New York Times’ foreign affairs correspondent.

“The culture-war surge in the US election campaign has come at the expense of meaningful debate about the real wars in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Cohen said. “Two intractable wars should preclude the culture war McCain has just so shamelessly embraced. He loves the word ‘fight’. So fight on the issues - and let the people decide.”

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