Watching the candidates spar at last week’s presidential debate in Denver, a casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that the upcoming election amounts to little more than a referendum on the state of the economy.
As moderator Jim Lehrer passively observed, President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney exchanged barbs on taxes, unemployment, energy policy, financial regulation, health reform, and the 2009 stimulus package. With the unemployment rate improving but still uncomfortably high at 7.8 percent, it’s unsurprising that the two contenders concentrated primarily on the question of who is best equipped to revive the nation’s economic fortunes. In a NBC News-Wall Street Journal survey conducted late last month, the economy ranked first on voters’ list of concerns, with 46 percent saying it would be the most important factor in determining their votes. But crucial as the economy will prove in determining the race’s outcome, the debate’s lack of focus on vital social issues was mystifying, in light of the significant impact the next administration will have in that area.
To be sure, many voters motivated by divisive questions like abortion, same-sex marriage, and gun control are fierce partisans who decided long ago whom they’d be voting for. With Obama and Romney competing for the remaining sliver of undecided voters, it’s to be expected that issues that motivate primary electorates won’t receive much attention in the general election campaign. What undecided voters may not realize, however, is just how significant an impact the outcome on November 6 is likely to have on hot-button social issues.
Eager to move on from a primary campaign featuring an anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist, an ethically-challenged former House Speaker, a former U.S. Senator with a penchant for sweater vests and a habit of linking homosexuality with bestiality, and a former pizza guy—all of whom groveled to prove to the GOP base just how right-wing they truly were—Romney has sought to tamp down talk of abortion and gay rights. Perhaps he figures that if he doesn’t harp on these issues in the general election campaign, independent voters who were out of the loop during the primaries will assume he still holds the same liberal positions on those issues that he did while a candidate for office in Massachusetts. Whenever he or his surrogates are asked about, say, the concerns of women voters, Romney responds that he’ll win women over by talking about the one thing they care about most: the economy.
The lengths to which Romney and his supporters will go to skirt discussions of controversial social questions is nothing short of remarkable. After Rep. Todd Akin, the GOP nominee for the U.S. Senate from Missouri, asserted that female victims of “legitimate rape” don’t get pregnant—and, therefore, that there’s no need for an abortion ban to include a rape exception—Romney’s campaign aides instructed reporters not to ask the candidate any questions about Akin or abortion. In a student debate last week sponsored by the University’s Institute of Politics, the College Republicans’ Eric Wessan, speaking in favor of the Romney candidacy, dismissed a question about same-sex marriage. “We shouldn’t even address such issues,” Wessan contended, “when we’re in the midst of the Great Recession.” It seemed clear that Wessan felt uncomfortable defending a political party whose stance on marriage equality is at odds with the vast majority of young voters—including many self-described conservative Republicans—but his argument is especially pernicious. It suggests that the extension of equal rights to minority groups should be contingent on the state of the national economy. Even worse, Wessan pretends that if Romney prevails next month, he’ll focus laser-intensively on the economy, doing little or nothing to affect the rights of millions of LGBT Americans.
Assume for a moment that, contrary to most observers’ expectations, Romney ascends to the White House on January 20, 2013. As president, he’ll likely have the opportunity to appoint multiple justices to the United States Supreme Court, which this term is expected to consider cases challenging the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8, and which has a slim five-to-four majority in favor of abortion rights. A Romney administration could only move the Supreme Court further to the right. Clinton appointees Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 79—who recently underwent treatment for pancreatic cancer—and Stephen Breyer, 74, are among the likeliest justices to leave the high court in the coming years. Another potential retirement is that of Anthony Kennedy, 76, a moderate conservative appointed by Reagan who provided the decisive vote in the 1992 case Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which affirmed the court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade. Given the tremendous pressure he will face from his party’s conservative base, it’s impossible to conceive of Romney replacing any of these justices with anyone other than a down-the-line social conservative. Hopes for federal recognition of same-sex marriage in the near future could well be dashed, and the Roe decision could easily be overturned.
Committed conservative activists understand what’s at stake for social issues in the impending election. Try as Romney and his fellow Republicans might to divert voters’ attention from the fact, a Romney administration would wield significant sway over whether women enjoy reproductive rights and whether LGBT Americans have full legal equality. Those questions are also on the ballot this year.
Luke Brinker is a graduate student in the MAPSS program.