Normally, economics determines everything in politics. That could still be true with 2012. Yet at this point, that is not happening. It isn’t because people aren’t worried about their jobs, businesses and the economy. It is because the economy has improved under Barack Obama. However…the improvement has not been significant.
The economy is not a black and white issue. It is gray. Whether Obama is going to be better than Romney on the economy or vice versa is not likely to be dramatic. A president doesn’t control the rudder of the economic ship like a captain. The economy is too vast for simple direction changing like that. It is more like dropping a paddle off the side of a large boat and making small turns to the right or left. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t.
It is far easier for a president to control foreign affairs. Romney’s criticisms of Obama in this area are not going to be vote changing. Obama has been successful in most of his foreign policy ventures, but there is room for criticism with Iran, North Korea and Afghanistan. In terms of swinging the election, foreign policy will not make the difference.
That brings us to culture. With Obama finally accepting same-sex marriage as a fundamental right, Romney is reaching out to social conservatives. He needs to energize them and bring them fully onto his campaign. Obama may have come out for same-sex marriage because he needs to energize his base, but he has also energized a base for Romney. Barring a collapse or remarkable recovery of the economy, or a significant foreign policy development, 2012 is going to be about the cultural issues separating Americans.
It is a struggle between religious and secular values. Same-sex marriage is one of those values. Abortion is another. Evolution is a part of that struggle. It also includes pornography and free speech. It includes medical marijuana and the drug war. While the drug war is not generally seen as a religious or secular issue, the two sides break down along religious and secular lines on it. Climate change and immigration follow the same pattern.
The struggle between religious and secular values formats the debate between the two sides and creates a frame of thought that embraces far more than socially conservative or socially liberal issues. It is about a way of life. At the center of that debate will be same-sex marriage. Neither Obama nor Romney want that to be the focus of the campaign because the nation is badly divided. What they want is not going to be what they are going to get. How the nation will split over that between now and November is a tossup.
Forget about the “it’s the economy, stupid.” It’s cultural values, stupid.
It is no coincidence that days after Obama declared his “evolved” same-sex marriage position Romney traveled to Liberty University, the former base of Jerry Falwell, to declare that “marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman.”
It is truly one of the great ironies of politics that Obama and Romney, descendants of polygamist families, are going to argue over who one person can marry.