When former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean began campaigning for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, he would regularly say in his stump speech, "I am tired of fighting elections on guns, God and gays. We're going to fight this election on our turf, which is going to be jobs, education and health care."
Fast-forward 10 years to the third month of President Obama's second term. Suddenly, the Democrats' turf doesn't look so friendly anymore. It's not hard to see why they're changing gears to fight a culture war of their own choosing.
The U.S. economy is still suffering through the weakest economic recovery since the Great Depression. Unemployment is stubbornly high, especially for Americans age 25 to 54, who make up the core of the nation's workforce. And the American public does not approve of Obama's bumbling and ineffectual attempts to handle the economy.
Meanwhile, Obama's failure to reach a grand bargain on deficit reduction has completely killed any hopes for new jobs or education programs. Instead of pushing for new stimulus spending or $10 billion a year for his proposed early education program, Obama is just trying to survive this year's $85 billion in sequester spending cuts.
Obama's signature domestic accomplishment, Obamacare, remains highly unpopular. Health care premiums are rising, as its opponents predicted, and numerous newspaper stories are now highlighting how the law is either discouraging new hiring altogether or forcing more Americans into part-time work involuntarily. The key component of the law, the state-based insurance exchanges, are supposed to be up and running in just over seven months, and no one believes they will be functioning properly. The federal bureaucrat in charge of implementing the exchanges recently told industry officials that he is no longer trying to make these exchanges provide a "world-class experience," but instead merely hoping they won't provide "a Third World experience."
Suddenly, guns, God and gays don't look so bad as key issues for the Democratic Party.
On Saturday, Obama devoted his weekly radio address to proposed new gun control laws, including background checks (which would not have prevented the tragedy in Newtown, Conn.) and the restoration of a demonstrably ineffective assault weapons ban that expired in 2004 after failing to prevent several of America's saddest and most memorable mass shootings. Given that nearly all gun violence is perpetrated with handguns -- not long guns and not so-called "assault weapons" -- it seems Obama's new focus on guns is designed not so much to prevent gun deaths as to energize Democratic voters who look down their noses at gun enthusiasts in flyover country.
And over the past week the most dangerous place to be in Washington was between a microphone and every Democratic politician looking to announce their newfound support for same-sex marriage. Democrats, detecting a sudden shift in public opinion on the issue, are just now starting to lead from behind.
Unless the economy markedly improves in the near future, or Obamacare is miraculously implemented without a hitch, expect Obama and the White House to turn the 2014 election into an all-out culture war centered around gun control and gay marriage. This is the only turf that appears remotely friendly to them these days.