E.J. Dionne describes, through the lens of the abortion issue, how as voters "we have created a system that encourages many in [politicians'] ranks to adjust their convictions to their political needs. And then we denounce them." For someone like me who often criticizes seemingly unprincipled decisions, this is a well-taken point. Voters who apply such single-issue litmus tests - on abortion, say, or gay marriage, or even the war in Iraq - distort the elective process so much that they force politicians to change their views in order to court their votes. This is especially true in cultural issues among primary voters.
Dionne also makes the point that the hot-button issues are seldom the most important issues to the politicians. I would argue that they're seldom the most important issues to the average voter too. Abortion probably wouldn't crack my top 20; gay marriage isn't really up there either (though since I view gay rights in general as a civil liberties issue, that ranks rather high). I made several rounds of "tell me what's important to you" calls for Greer (my state house candidate) this past election cycle, and not a single respondent mentioned abortion, gay marriage, or any similar "hot button" issue. The closest I got was a crazy old lady concerned about the "war on Christmas," and that was way down on her list too. This leads to a turning off of voters in the middle who aren't seeing press time for their top issues, which leaves the voting field to the single-issue hot-button voters. Which in turn forces the candidates to address these voters, which perpetuates the cycle.
What's the solution? We are all, to some extent, concerned with these issues, whether or not they're the most important ones to us. In my case, since I rank civil liberties issues - which often develop hot-button status - in my top three when most people wouldn't, I'm probably just as guilty as the next guy in perpetuating this cycle. Should we ask our politicians to be like John Edwards and just talk about economic issues, news cycle be damned? Maybe. But more directly, we can stop viewing candidates' stances on a particular issue as deal-breakers. If candidates knew that they could disagree with us on an issue here and there but still have our support, they would be more likely to be candid with us, and our political debate would benefit.
Rant over. I'll be back to lowering the discourse tomorrow.