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WASHINGTON – The culture warriors keep knocking on the White House doors, but President Joe Biden seldom answers.
When the Vatican announced last month the Catholic Church wouldn’t bless same-sex unions, the White House dodged when asked for a response from Biden, the nation’s second Catholic president and a gay rights supporter who officiated at a wedding of two men five years ago.
“I don’t think he has a personal response to the Vatican,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during a briefing that day. Psaki reaffirmed the president’s support of same-sex unions: “He’s long had that position.”
A couple of weeks earlier, Psaki punted when asked why Biden made no mention of Dr. Seuss in his proclamation declaring March 2 – the children’s book author’s birthday – as the annual “Read Across America Day.” Psaki suggested a reporter reach out to the Department of Education, which she said drafted the proclamation.
Psaki’s nuanced response to both questions underscores the delicate balance the White House is taking as Biden navigates a minefield of hot-button social issues ranging from the gender of children’s toys (see Mr. Potato Head) to transgender athletes in school sports to GOP complaints about “cancel culture.”
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A ‘lose-lose’ proposition
Democrats see the latest culture war skirmishes as a desperate attempt by Republicans to rile up their base against a president who gets high marks from the public for the way he has handled the coronavirus pandemic and who doesn’t incite the kind of vitriol from the GOP rank-and-file as, say, Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.
“They have no positive policy agenda and no effective criticism of Biden's work on the pandemic and economy, so they're flailing and talking exclusively to their hardcore base,” Democratic strategist Josh Schwerin said. “One party is talking about shots in arms and checks in bank accounts. The other party is talking about Dr. Seuss and Satanic sneakers. That's about as clear a win as you can get for Democrats."
Matt Mackowiak, a Republican strategist based in Texas, said turning to the culture wars to energize its base is a good strategy for the GOP because it puts Biden in an awkward position politically.
“If you think about it, it’s lose-lose strategically” for Biden, Mackowiak said. “He either puts himself on what I would argue is the majority position on cultural issues and, in doing so, kind of angers the hard left. Or he chooses not to engage, and then he makes no friends on either side.”
Biden hasn’t stayed completely out of the culture wars. Last week, he condemned efforts in Republican-led states to restrict voting rights as “sick” and “un-American.” He called for new gun control measures after mass shootings in Colorado and Georgia. The White House has reiterated his support for transgender rights as GOP lawmakers in more than two dozen states introduced bills that would bar transgender athletes from participating in school sports.
But for the most part, Biden’s response to the culture war scuffles raging on social media and other public forums during the first two months of his presidency has been no response at all.
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‘A distraction from his work’
Biden is wise to ignore the culture wars discourse, said Jennifer Mercieca, associate professor of communication at Texas A&M University.
“Biden’s base isn’t interested in the culture wars," she said. "They support him because of his pragmatic problem-solving agenda. Engaging in the culture wars discourse would just be a distraction from his work and his message.”
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By sidestepping the policy debates that often turn into culture wars, Biden denies his opponents the opportunity to set the agenda and control the national debate, said Lauren Wright, a political scientist at Princeton University.
“It’s no surprise that Biden’s next policy push is a broadly appealing one from a public opinion standpoint: infrastructure,” Wright said, citing polling that shows a majority of Americans have consistently been in favor of spending more to fix the nation’s bridges, roads and tunnels.
Infrastructure is “an issue with cross-partisan appeal, where there also tends to be more room for bargaining and more carrots than other policy areas,” Wright said. “Even in a polarized Congress, it's not out of the question for a few Republicans who want to bring job growth to their states to support funding for infrastructure projects.”
Though cultural issues play well with religious conservatives – a GOP constituency – they have produced mixed results for the party in national elections.
George W. Bush eked out a narrow victory in his bid for a second term as president in 2004 in part because Republicans used state ballot initiatives banning same-sex marriage to drive conservative turnout at the polls.
Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, lost his reelection bid to Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992 after religious conservatives turned the Republican National Convention into a forum on gay rights, abortion and what political commentator Pat Buchanan sneeringly dubbed “radical feminism.”
Two years later, the rhetoric of cultural conservatives helped fuel the Republican revolution that allowed the GOP to claim a majority in the House and the Senate for the first time in more than 40 years.
Since then, cultural issues have lost some of their political punch. A poll released last month by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute showed that more than three-quarters of Americans (76%) support laws that protect the LGBTQ community from discrimination in housing, jobs and public accommodations. More than two-thirds of Americans (67%) said they support same-sex marriage. For the first time, the survey showed a slim majority of Republicans (51%) backed gay marriage.
During Donald Trump’s presidency, Republican leaders saw no need to rile up the culture warriors, Mackowiak said. Trump did it for them.
“Trump enjoyed getting in the middle of the culture wars,” Mackowiak said. “He thought it was good for him politically. He thought it angered all of his enemies – the cultural elites, the hard left, the Democratic Party nationally. Biden has the exact opposite instinct. The incentives are simply not there for him to engage.”
Now that Trump is out of office and on the sidelines, the culture wars are back. And there are no signs of a cease-fire anytime soon.
Speaking with actions
After the company that oversees Dr. Seuss’ estate decided to cease publication and sales of six of his titles because of racist and insensitive imagery, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., tweeted a video of himself reading “Green Eggs and Ham” – a classic book that wasn’t on the to-be-discontinued list.
When the makers of Mr. Potato Head decided the toy should be genderless and dropped “Mr.” from the name, conservatives screamed the move was part of the left’s “cancel culture.” Social media tried to drag Biden into the fray, causing PolitiFact to clarify the change was a company decision.
Public ostracism also has been a weapon of the right. In 2003, the Dixie Chicks (now known simply as The Chicks) were blacklisted by thousands of radio stations after lead singer Natalie Maines slammed George W. Bush on stage in London.
During the debate over the Equality Act, a congressional bill that would bar discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation or gender identity, Rep. Marie Newman, D-Ill., placed the transgender pride flag outside her office in support of her transgender child. Across the hallway, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., responded by hanging a sign that proclaimed, “There are two genders: Male & Female.”
In case there was any doubt to whom the message was directed, Greene wrote on Twitter that she posted the sign, so Newman “can look at it every time she opens her door.”
Biden may have stayed silent on many culture issues, but he has spoken through his actions, said Emilie Kao of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Washington.
On his first day in office, Biden signed a slew of executive orders, including one that aimed to combat discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. The order proclaimed every person should be treated with respect and dignity “no matter who they are or whom they love,” and children should be able to learn “without worrying about whether they will be denied access to the restroom, the locker room or school sports.”
“He may not be commenting on specific things like the pope and Mr. Potato Head, but his actions have spoken quite loudly about where he stands,” said Kao, director of the Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Religion & Civil Society. “And where he stands is very, very, very radical.”
Kao pointed to a survey in February by the Heritage Foundation in which a majority of respondents (58%) opposed allowing high school students who were born male but identify as female from playing on girls’ sports teams. A slight majority (53%) opposed allowing students to use private facilities, such as showers or locker rooms, assigned to the opposite biological sex.
State legislative initiatives on transgender sports are a response to Congress and “fear of what the White House is doing,” Kao said.
Wright warned that Republicans could pay politically for “extreme and oversimplified messaging” on cultural issues.
“‘Owning the libs’ is not a serious policy platform,” Wright said. “There's just no way for Republicans to meaningfully engage in policy debates when a lot of their platform seems to be simply opposing Democratic policies and when they have conspiracy theories and anti-intellectualism spreading in their ranks.
“Under normal political circumstances, a Democrat in the White House and a Democratic Party divided along progressive and moderate lines would be a boon to Republicans,” she said. “But that's not what we're seeing right now.”
Michael Collins covers the White House. Follow him on Twitter @mcollinsNEWS.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Culture wars: Joe Biden avoids engaging the right on social issues