Social issues are labeled "wedge issues" for a reason. They appeal to emotion. They are easily communicated. They count when ballots are cast. Throw in poll-tested rhetoric and effective manipulation of facts, and there you have it: the capture of an important voting bloc.
I do not know the genesis of the term. It may have been hatched in a Nixon-era appeal to southern white conservative Democrats none too happy with court ordered school desegregation and a sharp left-hand turn by a McGovern-ite Democratic Party in 1972. Whether by nefarious design or more benign factors, the tactic worked. Today, the once "solid (Democratic) south" is safe GOP territory.
In more recent years, it is the Democrats who have perfected the art of wedge politics. And Democratic candidates are enjoying the fruits of the party's tactical successes.
One thing to keep in mind, however. Repeated reliance on wedge issues usually means the utilizing party's political fortunes have begun to sag. Today, that whimpering you hear is an administration in trouble. A feckless foreign policy has our opportunistic adversaries anything but scared. A tepid economic recovery continues to keep the middle class on edge. Obamacare is an ad hoc mess. The president's public approval is dipping into the high 30s. Time for a barrage of wedgies. To wit:
•"Income Inequality." A strategy straight from the "Occupy Wall Street" playbook. It is the sentimental favorite of class warriors through the ages. The logic is transparent: The wealthy attained their status at the expense of the poor. So the preferred remedy is the "Robin Hood" variety — take from the rich and give to the poor, and don't let up, there will always be plenty of poor people. In this way, an "even playing field" will be forever in sight — if not attainable under a capitalist economy.
•"Minimum Wage." This beauty is playing out before our eyes. Whether a boost in the minimum wage or the labor union invented "living wage," the mantra is "fairness." And never mind that most minimum wage earners are typically at that level for less than a year, or that fewer still are the family's chief wage earner, or that hundreds of thousands of people will lose their jobs (according to the bipartisan Congressional Budget Office) as a result of the proposed federal increase. The bottom line: Raising the minimum wage does not reduce poverty, it simply provides a raise for some marginal workers, while others (the most marginal) lose their jobs. And all in the name of that feel good intangible: "compassion."
•"Gender Inequality." The latest and greatest scam from the Obama administration. But what was supposed to be a gender-gap-widening thunderbolt turned ugly when reports surfaced that a sizable salary gap exists within the White House itself. When questioned about this apparent contradiction, presidential Press Secretary Jay Carney asserted that 88 cents on the dollar for female White House workers "is not 100, but it is better than the national average." That's a pitiful response and inaccurate to boot: Recent economic studies reflect a far more narrow income gap between the sexes — not the 23 cents so often quoted by the president. And with regard to that shortfall, there are equal pay laws on the books ("The Equal Pay Act of 1963" remains the law of the land) to ensure against gender discrimination for similarly situated employees of equal skills not subject to seniority or merit systems — the true definition of gender discrimination.
•"The Politics of Personal Destruction." The casual political observer may be surprised to watch the Harry Reid-led rhetorical onslaught against two men most Americans have never heard of — David and Charles Koch. The target of the Senate majority leader's demonization campaign are successful, wealthy businessmen who had the temerity to start a non-profit (Americans for Prosperity) that runs around the country touting the advantages of competition and free markets. They also run television commercials highlighting controversial votes cast by vulnerable Democrats in marginal seats — most especially votes in support of Obamacare. Unsurprisingly, their equally wealthy counterparts on the left (George Soros, Ted Turner, Michael Bloomberg) are never brought into the discussions about the dangers of money in politics. Selective indignation indeed!
Whether the GOP can effectively counter this "lowest common denominator" strategy will determine whether it will re-emerge as a viable national party. Failure means a continued role as a diminished homogeneous player only able to muster majorities in off-year elections. High stakes for the party of Lincoln.
Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding and the author of "Turn this Car Around" and "America: Hope for Change" — books about national politics. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.To respond to this commentary, send an email to email@example.com. Please include your name and contact information.