The art of wedging political knickers

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By Jim Flynn

Someone once described the pain of a hangover as a spike driven into the top of his head by some evil force. That’s a wonderfully apt metaphor for the pain of political headaches called wedge issues.

A wedge issue is an emotionally charged subject of dissent within a political party, which may cause otherwise loyal members to withhold support of the party’s candidate – or something even more treasonous.

Wedge issues can be double trouble. In addition to diluting support within a party, a wedge issue opens an opportunity for the opposing party to persuade disaffected members to vote for the opposition candidate.

Wedge issues are temporary and fleeting. In 1968 Republicans used crime and the war in Vietnam to wedge suburban Democrats into voting for Richard Nixon. In the 1972 campaign, Republicans championed states’ rights and discontinuance of forced busing to win Southern states away from the Democrats.

The most noteworthy wedge issue in American politics was slavery. Beginning with the election of 1800, it divided parties, families, and eventually the whole nation.

The most proficient present-day practitioner of the art of politics and wedge issues is Carl Rove, long-time friend and political adviser to George W. Bush, an unlikely two-term governor of Texas and an even more unlikely two-term president of the United States.

Rove’s success as a political guru comes from his detailed knowledge of the numbers and natures of voters in every state, county, and precinct. If there is a wedge which might move a significant number of persuadable voters to his candidate, Mr. Rove will look for a way to take advantage of it.

Parties try to avoid discussing wedge issues which might divide their base. Meanwhile, their opponents try to incite discussions of divisive issues in any way they can. It’s tricky business. Sometimes incitement boomerangs on the inciter.

Wedge issues in the 2008 presidential campaign may include immigration, same-sex marriage, stem cell research, global warming, war in Iraq, and race.

University of Arkansas political scientist Todd Shields has suggested that truly national elections may be over. He says citizens are not casting ballots on the same issues. Campaigns spend considerable time and money identifying pockets of persuadable voters who agree or disagree with their party on issues of personal importance.

Professor Shields contends that national campaigns are plain vanilla. Meanwhile, separate underground campaigns try to identify issues which can be addressed to persuadable audiences by mail, telephone, door knocking, and the Internet.

Shields and co-author D.S. Hillygus have published their conclusions in The Persuadable Voter: Wedge Issues in Presidential Campaigns. A fair summary of their findings is that there are many wedge issues in today’s presidential campaigns, each of which gets tailored for a targeted audience.

Targeting persuadable voters has become as sophisticated as advertising. During the current presidential campaign, political flyers in Florida retirement community mailboxes will be quite different from those in New York suburbs. So too, voters in Tallahassee won’t receive the same calls as those in Miami – maybe not even in the same language.

Political campaigns now have a general idea of your income, what you read, what you drive, where you shop, and how your county, precinct, and neighborhood voted in recent elections. In league with snoops at the FBI, the IRS, and Madison Avenue marketing firms, political parties are making privacy as outdated as hidden underwear. They know who you are!

Presidential candidates arise each day determined to convince voters of their sincere and patriotic intent to further the causes of truth, justice, and the American way. Their primary tool is a one-fits-all stump speech, as hollow as a Halloween pumpkin.

This year’s favorite one-size sales pitch is “change,” which may be all we’ll have left in our pockets after the major parties are done spending the nation into bankruptcy.

Later in the campaign you may be wedged individually, told things you want to hear, and given the secret password to a brighter and more prosperous future. You’ll decide to vote for ee whomever.

Don’t be surprised if you wake up the morning of Nov. 5, 2008, with a wedgie headache and a vague sensation that the president speaking on every news channel doesn’t sound like the candidate for whom you voted.

It’s called voters’ remorse. Take two aspirin and shut off the TV.

Jim Flynn was formerly a corporate counsel, served in military intelligence during the Korean War, and once aspired to be a newspaper columnist.