In the pre-Palin days of this election campaign, divisive social issues such as abortion were taking a back seat. Barack Obama and John McCain were driving other issues, and so were most voters. That dynamic could now change.
Preconvention polls consistently showed the economy as Americans' No. 1 concern. Voters in an August survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, for instance, ranked energy as No. 2, with healthcare and education tied for third place. Generically, "moral values" were important to 61 percent of voters (in seventh place after Iraq and terrorism). But when it came to the specifics of abortion and gay marriage, interest dropped way off.
Will the personal views of John McCain's running mate – on abortion, same-sex marriage, and creationism – revive America's culture clash?
Christian conservatives expect much from her. And hot-button ballot questions, particularly in two swing states, could significantly influence the electoral calculus in a surprisingly tight presidential race. (For instance, Coloradans will decide whether a fertilized human egg is a "person," effectively banning abortion; Florida will choose whether to amend its constitution to recognize only marriage between a man and a woman as a legal union.)
It's not clear whether Palin will bring out "values voters" as in 2004, when they gave the edge to President Bush. But America 2008 is not the same place as four years ago. Stung by '04, Democrats are looking for areas of shared values. Listen to Mr. Obama at his acceptance speech in Denver last month:
"We may not agree on abortion, but surely we can agree on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies in this country. The reality of gun ownership may be different for hunters in rural Ohio than for those plagued by gang violence in Cleveland, but don't tell me we can't uphold the Second Amendment while keeping AK-47s out of the hands of criminals."
This year, Democrats for the first time wrote language into their platform to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies through care and education efforts – while still staunchly supporting Roe v. Wade.
It's a position and tone in line with most Americans. A consistent majority favors abortion rights, while two-thirds want the country to reach a middle ground, according to Pew. Meanwhile, about a half-dozen anti-abortion initiatives failed to get on state ballots this year for lack of public support.
The 2008 GOP platform effectively calls for a constitutional ban on abortion and same-sex marriage – but Mr. McCain opposes the bans, though he's pro-life and believes marriage is only between a man and a woman.
Gay marriage, McCain says, should be decided by states. Indeed, state legislatures can give all sides their say, then decide on policies or constitutional amendments which can more closely reflect people's views than a court.
In four years, views on gay marriage have softened, according to the August Pew survey. Fifty-two percent of Americans oppose same-sex marriage, down from 60 percent in 2004. They've warmed to civil unions, which 54 percent support – up from 48 percent.
These are complex issues that America needs to debate civilly without demonizing those who disagree. Compromises may be emerging. The next president should help the country find them.