Looming Fight

Battles in the culture wars have flared over the past 40 years. Now, with a key Supreme Court seat open, some analysts fear a level of bitter conflict that could turn the country inside out.

July 03, 2005|By John Woestendiek and Robert Little | John Woestendiek and Robert Little,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

It's going to be a bruiser.

If you thought election 2004 and Terri Schiavo's last days were nasty confrontations in the so-called culture wars, just wait for the fight over who will fill Sandra Day O'Connor's U.S. Supreme Court seat.

Ruptures over gay marriage, flag burning or displaying the Ten Commandments will feel like mere tremors compared with the cultural quake sure to erupt when the nation's differences become the weapons with which the Supreme Court's future is determined, political analysts say. Expect the "red" and the "blue" to go at it fiercely enough to leave the nation purple, or at least with some long-lingering bitter feelings.

"It's likely to be the political equivalent of the war of the worlds," said Marshall Wittman - once legislative director for the Christian Coalition, now a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. "Unless the president completely surprises everyone and picks a moderate, he will likely trigger an end-of-all-times cultural battle over this nomination."

The White House said Bush won't announce a nominee until at least July 8, after he returns from a trip to Europe, but the fight over that nominee is looking to be bloody.

Soon after word of O'Connor's retirement surfaced, Planned Parenthood announced a series of rallies and sent a message to supporters saying, "We cannot remain idle in the face of such a threat."

David Corn, Washington editor of the left-leaning periodical The Nation, quickly posted a column saying, "It should be ugly."

"There will be much at stake. But ugly is ugly," he wrote, adding, "A titanic fight over a Supreme Court nomination can really ruin a summer in Washington."

"The supply lines are being formed," Wittman said Friday, hours after O'Connor, the first woman on the Supreme Court and a swing vote on abortion, announced her retirement.

"Everyone is canceling their weekend vacations to hunker down. People are being deluged with political spam. Everyone's sharpening their sound bites. It's lock-and-load time in Washington."

Those who believe in the concept of culture wars - the idea that the nation is increasingly divided into increasingly entrenched camps that are increasingly at odds over whether the government should legislate moral values - agree that this could be the mother of all of them.

Even before the 2004 election, which seemed to turn on the relatively new political theme of "moral values," the country's fractured conscience had grown apparent.

Disagreements over the balance of church and state have played out in debates over creationism in public schools or display of the Ten Commandments on public property, for instance. A rift over the definition of life and death, kept open by issues related to abortion, has been widened by debates in Congress and elsewhere about things like embryonic stem cell research and Schiavo's right to live or die.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have provided more fuel, not only by spawning political opposition, but also by sparking disagreements over such matters as the treatment and rights of political prisoners, or whether individual rights should be sacrificed in the name of security.

Some see these culture wars as a concoction of the news media, think tank talking heads and TV producers who like everything to be, if not black and white, at least red and blue.

But even the cynics agree that O'Connor's resignation creates a prism through which the disagreements are likely to be concentrated, amplified and perhaps distorted, leading to the political skirmish of the fledgling century. No matter whom Bush nominates, Democrats are likely to put up a fight and, based on the high stakes and their losing record of late, it's likely to be an all-out one.

Some say another big, prolonged, values-laden battle in Washington will do little more than increase alienation and apathy among the masses, and even widen the rift between the right and left - that, when it comes to the national fabric, we might want to consider switching to Kevlar.

`A firestorm'

"The Democrats will see no downside to attacking this nominee mercilessly," said Richard Shenkman, editor of George Mason University's History News Network. "I don't see any way around it, really. It will be a firestorm."

The president could, of course, defuse the fireworks by appointing a moderate nominee, though few consider that likely. With his poll numbers down and his conservative core in need of a good soothing, he is more apt to rally supporters with a candidate of their ilk. And besides, the conservatives have been burned by the so-called moderates in the past.

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