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'Wedge Issue' Just an Excuse for Liberal Avoidance

By Mark Davis

After the smoke from each election clears, I try to mount an effort to strike a useless term from the dictionary of discourse.

In 2004, my target was "statistical dead heat." It drove me nuts that polls featuring a candidate up by 4 points with a 4 point margin of error were called a tie. Since the margin of error could swing either way, couldn't such a race just as easily be called a "statistical 8-point blowout?"

Oh, well. I lost that one. The 2006 elections were filled with statistical dead heats, and future elections probably will be as well. Now I seek to tilt at an even more insidious windmill: the "wedge issue."

By its very name, the term suggests issues that divide people. This invites the question: which issues these days do not divide people? Anyone observing the political landscape lately might wonder if conservatives and liberals would agree that two plus two equals four.

I've been fond of embracing rather than shrinking from this natural human tendency. The air is always filled with calls for "bipartisanship" and "common ground," most of which are pure piffle.

It would have been nice if America could have stayed united about a war on terror, but beyond that, people have a natural inclination to seeing things their way, and they want to win.

Conservatives want solutions that match their worldview; so do liberals. What is the bipartisan solution to tax cuts? Keep half of them? How do we find common ground on abortion? Should pro-lifers abandon their desire to protect the unborn, or should pro-choicers suddenly develop one? Virtually every issue facing our society has two (or sometimes more) solutions that proponents are ready to enact immediately. Rather than muddle around in some squishy middle ground, one side should win so that we can see if their solution works.

Against this backdrop comes the rise of the term "wedge issue." Almost every weasel word has a real-life definition. In current media parlance, a "maverick" is a Republican who develops a hostility to his party's base (see John McCain and Jim Jeffords - note that Joe Lieberman is not a maverick for courageously refusing to join his party's antagonism toward the war).

An "extremist" is someone whose words or actions smack of too much conservatism for politically correct ears. Note that Sen. Ted Kennedy is never tarred with that term while comparing U.S. troops at Abu Ghraib to Saddam Hussein's torturing hordes. Not even Cindy Sheehan earned that label while co-opting her son's war death into a political hate campaign.

Similarly, "wedge issue" is kept alive by the leftward orientation of the mass culture political lexicon. It usually means "an issue liberals don't want to talk about because they lose." The prime examples are gay marriage and immigration.

The left gets clobbered for its willingness to expand legal recognition to include same-sex unions, and most Americans disagree with borders as loose as Democrats want. So, rather than actually discuss or adjust their positions, they demonize those who bring them up. "They're just trying to divide America" is the usual scolding, as if Democrats are not trying to "divide America" by changing a definition of marriage that has served us well for eons.

On gay marriage, immigration, taxes or anything else, the various sides should bring their best arguments to the arena to see which ideas win and which lose.

The funny thing is, it is Democrats who have made the best recent use of what could certainly be called a wedge issue in its textbook definition - an issue that ideally drives a wedge into your opposition and brings some of them across ideological lines.

That issue is stem cell research. Say what you will about the Michael J. Fox ad campaign, but at least in Missouri, it worked this past election day, as a sufficient number of people in a fairly red state were made to believe that Republicans don't want Parkinson's patients to get better.

The fact is that just as Democrats lose on some issues, opposition to stem cell research is a ballot box loser for the GOP right now. "Wedge issue?" Nonsense. It's just one on a long list of topics, some of which favor the right and some the left. Let's debate all of them on their merits, and if people are divided, they're divided. That's how problems get solved and lessons get learned.

Mark Davis is a columnist for the Dallas Morning News. The Mark Davis Show is heard weekdays nationwide on the ABC Radio Network. His e-mail address is mdavis@wbap.com.

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