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Capitol Perspectives: Wedge Issues

Phill Brooks
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In the past few weeks, wedge issues have consumed a significant portion of the Missouri General Assembly’s time.

It should not be a surprise. It is, after all, an election year.

Wedge issues are pushed for political, usually partisan, gain. The term “wedge” is used because the issues are designed to drive a wedge into the electorate — to clearly identify a party’s position on an issue that will attract a segment of voters.

For many years, abortion has been a wedge issue for Republicans in Missouri. Obviously, there is strong GOP resistance to abortion rights. But the abortion issue also can bring over anti-abortion Democrats.

Recently, however, a somewhat different issue has become a leading wedge issue. It’s health care, or, more precisely, it’s the mandates in the new federal health law now before the U.S. Supreme Court.

This year, there has been a near flood of measures that approach the pre-Civil War theory of nullification that a state can invalidate or ignore a federal law. Not only are there proposals to refuse to acknowledge the federal health insurance requirements, there also have been measures against federal laws on gun control, abortion and civil unions.

Even the “birther” issue has been brought into the legislature; the state’s House spent much of one morning debating whether to require that a presidential candidate offer proof of being born in the U.S. in order for to have the candidate be on Missouri’s ballot.

Wedge issues are not limited just to attracting voters. It also can be something designed to raise campaign contributions.

I’ve heard Democrats charge that’s the motivation behind the Republican-controlled legislature making the business coalition’s agenda the first issues to clear the 2012 session, despite the likelihood of gubernatorial veto.

Wedge issues, however, can work for both sides. We heard that recently when Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon used the legislature’s pro-business record at a recent labor union rally to urge support for his reelection campaign.

Not only can wedge issues be used by both sides, but sometimes the results are not predictable. That was the case in 2004 when Republicans put on the ballot Constitutional Amendment 2, which would deny state recognition of same-sex marriages.

Democrats charged Republicans were just using the issue to energize conservatives and fundamentalists to boost Republican turnout in the November elections.

But then-Gov. Bob Holden had a surprise for the Republicans. The Democratic governor put the issue on the August ballot, an election that would not hold an advantage for Republicans.

It cost Holden dearly. It probably cost him his job as governor.

A close examination of the results shows that the anti-gay marriage proposal probably did bring out a lot of voters from Republican areas of the state. With no major statewide Republican primary contests, it appears that many Republican voters took Democratic ballots and voted against liberal Holden’s nomination.

That helped hand the gubernatorial primary victory to Claire McCaskill. The morning after the election when I ran into one of Holden’s top campaign aides in the Capitol garage, he immediately acknowledged that Holden “took one for the party.”

Spending legislative floor time on wedge issues over which lawmakers have no real authority is not necessarily wasted time. Often I’ve seen filibusters pursued just to give key legislators time to work out agreements on complicated and major state policy issues.

It’s a key lesson I keep teaching my journalism students — that when things slow down in the House or Senate, look outside the chamber for meetings and negotiations. Sometimes, what happens in the chamber is just theater.

However, the amount of time the legislature is spending on wedge issues this year is unusual. Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, recently voiced frustration to her colleagues about how much time the Senate had spent on the contraception insurance issue. “I’m speaking on behalf of thousands of women in the state of Missouri who are sick and tired of being used as pawns in this political debate,” she said.

But Justus also acknowledged that “frankly, both sides are guilty of bringing this issue up as typical election-year politics.”

On the other side of the statehouse, House Speaker Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, forcefully defended wedge issues earlier this year when I asked him about the dominance of these measures in the 2012 legislative session.

“I think that it’s important to distinguish between the two parties before people vote,” Tilley said.

Before you dismiss his argument, consider this. Which would more likely sway your vote this November for a legislative candidate: a candidate’s position on federal health care mandates over which the state legislature has no control, or the candidate’s position on fixing the complicated formula for allocating funds for the state’s public schools?

As always, let me know (at column@mdn.org) if you have any comments. If you would like your comments, or a portion of them, included in a future column, let me know and be sure to include your full name in your email. Past columns are available at www.mdn.org/mpacol or here.

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