What are wedge issues? Well, a lot depends on whom you ask. Political consultants usually define them as issues that unite the base but split the opposition. The most familiar examples are guns, God and gays. But they can include everything from the Pledge of Allegiance to crime.
Traditionally, conservatives are cast as the villains in the wedge-issue story. And there's some truth to the tale. What initially offended liberals was the way Republicans made race and civil rights issues for national discussion (ironic considering how liberals are always clamoring for a "national conversation" on race). Liberals will tell you that Republicans shattered the consensus on civil rights by running on racially charged issues. Conservatives will say that liberals invited a so-called "racial backlash" by going too far on issues like quotas and being soft on crime.
I think conservatives have the better argument in that fight, but that doesn't mean Republican politicians were angels in every contest.
Regardless, it didn't take long for Democrats to expand the definition of wedge issues to include pretty much any issue they didn't want to talk about.
In his book "What's the Matter with Kansas?" Thomas Frank insisted that Republicans only know how to win on divisive wedge issues that distract voters from their "real" interests. This amounted to McMarxism -- a dumbed-down, mass-market version of the old socialist notion of "false consciousness." Liberals like Frank assume voters are too dumb to know what they should care about.
President Obama subscribes to a similar view of the world, as when he explained that Democratic (!) voters in western Pennsylvania weren't supporting him because they were too "bitter" and determined to "cling" to their petty bigotries and cultural prejudices.
Looked at from a broad historical perspective, complaints about wedge issues are really gripes about declining liberal power. Democrats take it as a given that the old New Deal-Great Society coalition is the natural order of things, and that members of that coalition -- everyone from minorities and intellectuals to working-class whites and union members -- belong in their column no matter what. Any effort to peel off any of those constituencies is therefore unfair or illegitimate.
This is ridiculous, of course. First of all, democracy itself is about disagreement, not agreement. Politics is about having arguments about what our priorities should be. It is inevitable that there will be winners and losers in those arguments.
Moreover, Democrats have always used wedge issues just as much as Republicans. Indeed, the Obama administration is a round-the-clock wedge issue machine. Obama's whole economic agenda at this point is hinged on dividing America between the haves and the have-nots. Rhetorically, he defines the haves as "millionaires and billionaires." But his policies set the benchmark lower -- households that make $250,000 a year. He makes it sound like all that's keeping us from prosperity are tax loopholes for corporate-jet patrons. He insists that our unemployment crisis is really an inequality crisis, precisely so he can stoke the flames of populist resentment in the hope that the resulting smoke will conceal his manifest policy failures.
That's why I love the Republican effort to turn the tables on Obama. The White House claims that the Republican plan to pay for extending the payroll tax credit will gut funding for education, veterans and clean energy. This, simply put, is a lie. Even the Washington Post's fact checker, Glenn Kessler, says this spin is dishonest.
The White House opposes the House bill -- the only legislation to extend the tax cut that actually exists -- for two reasons. First, in order to have a theme for 2012, it desperately needs to maintain the fiction that Republicans don't want to help the middle class. Second, House Republicans brilliantly included in their bill the requirement that the White House make a decision on green-lighting the Keystone oil pipeline from Canada. Labor unions support the idea because it will bring thousands of jobs to working-class Americans. Meanwhile, polls show that working-class Americans and independents are in favor of more oil development. But Obama's real base of upscale liberals and petrophobic environmentalists hates it for all the usual reasons.
Tellingly, a senior White House official told reporters on background that the president will veto any bill that forces his hand on the issue. But the White House's public statement didn't even mention the pipeline for fear of signaling to working-class voters and independents that Obama is against it.
In short, Obama hates the pipeline deal because it is both symbolically and concretely an issue that drives a wedge straight through his base and his re-election spin.