Contentious Issues in Election 2004

Politicians, and especially presidential candidates, love to avoid tough questions by changing the subject to something wholly unobjectionable — such as “hope” or “responsibility” or “values.” These gooey proclamations almost never mean anything, because campaigns usually focus on such mundane stuff as employment rates. That’s not the case this year, though. Judges and social activists have forced the action on important but contentious issues, effectively thrusting social controversies into politicians’ laps.

Consider two disputes: Public religious expression and marriage. Alabama’s former Chief Justice, Roy Moore, committed civil disobedience by installing a Ten Commandments monument within the high court’s main building. Similarly, officials in Asbury Park, New Jersey; Nyack and New Paltz, New York; Portland, San Francisco and Seattle have taken the law into their own hands by celebrating same-sex marriages, despite public laws to the contrary.

In both cases, activists decided to flout convention to change settled law. But note what they did not do: They did not appeal directly to the public. They didn’t try to win arguments in the court of public opinion; they asked judges to settle things once and for all.

That approach inevitably produces more hard feelings than consensus. Who likes having an unelected judge lay down the law? Judicial ukases rob people of the chance to settle tough issues amicably and democratically. This may explain why, for the first time in decades, voters are talking openly about ways to rein in judges, or even replace lawgivers who seem determined to flout public opinion.

It certainly explains why George W. Bush and John F. Kerry will have to talk at length this year about issues they would rather avoid, especially the nexus of marriage and religion. It should be interesting.  To lead is to take a stand — and the man who stands with public sentiment this time around almost certainly will be taking the oath of office next Jan. 20.