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If this is Such a Conservative Era, Why Is the White House Downplaying Alito's Rightwing Views?

If conventional wisdom is correct and conservatism is on the rise in America, why has the Bush administration tried to hide and finesse the conservative views of its Supreme Court nominee, Judge Samuel A. Alito, Jr.? If this is such a conservative era, why isn't the White House aggressively promoting Alito's opposition to abortion, narrow view of discrimination, and support for Christianity in the public square?

The answer is that the country is far more socially liberal than the conventional wisdom says, and it's precisely because of this liberalism that the Bush administration showcases a more moderate Judge Alito and uses stealth to accomplish its conservative social agenda.

When the exit polls from 2004 found that about one in five voters listed"moral values" as their top concern, the press jumped on it as if they had discovered a revealing new trend. It didn’t take long for the media to run cover stories on conservative evangelicals as the new mainstream. These are"the folks," as FOX polemicist Bill O'Reilly calls them.

But as is often the case with the media, this breakthrough insight is really yesterday's news, much like the press in the 1920s that breathlessly reported on the triumphant Prohibitionists. Today's social conservatives no more represent the mainstream than the temperance movement did in the twenties."The folks" are increasingly comprised of Baby Boomers and those younger, whose views reflect the pluralism and social liberalism of the last forty years.

Indeed if Karl Rove sensed that social conservatives were an emerging majority, he would be publicly pushing Judge Alito as the right man to restore the social norms of the fifties. But as a Philadelphia Inquirer headline recently stated,"White House rebuts Alito conservative label."

In fact the two times Rove stage-managed a political convention, it's been moderates and minorities on prime time, and social conservatives hidden from the press. If Rove thought that putting conservatives on the stage would have won him the election, it's a safe bet he would have done exactly that.

Remember, Bush portrayed himself as a moderate when he initially ran for president, proclaiming his support for diversity, the environment, and women's rights -- and dodging questions on abortion, saying only that he supported a" culture of life," a phrase that on its face is unobjectionable to most moderates and liberals.

Both Bush and Rove learned an important lesson from the 1992 campaign, when the vast majority of Americans recoiled from Patrick Buchanan's convention speech proclaiming"a religious war … for the soul of America." We can pretty up the 1950s all we want, but most of us don't want a return to the days when we told women to stay home, blacks to stay docile, gays to stay closeted, non-Christians to stay inconspicuous, and those who don't conform to stay silent.

So if the culture is more socially liberal than conventional wisdom says, why isn't it reflected in elections? One reason is that most Americans -- excepting social conservatives -- don't vote on cultural issues or see them as part of politics, and whatever cultural concerns they have are typically assuaged by candidates like Bush who temper their social conservatism during campaigns. Another reason is that the South, the most rigidly conservative region, votes as a bloc -- take away the white South and John Kerry would have won by millions in an electoral landslide.

Even more important, the most socially conservative age cohort -- those over 60 -- constitute a much higher percentage of voters than their actual numbers, meaning that elections significantly under represent contemporary norms.

Just look at gay rights. Surveys show that a majority of Americans support civil unions, that most young people are fine with gay marriage, and that the only ones who reject homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle are those older than baby boomers. Years ago the idea of gay marriage was inconceivable, let alone gay adoption and gays on TV. So is social liberalism or social conservatism in retreat?

Or look at Catholics, considered the most socially conservative ethnic group. Large majorities favor gay adoption, birth control, and abortion rights, and according to National Opinion Research Center data, only 27 percent of boomer and younger Catholics label themselves traditional, compared with 44 percent among those older.

Our current culture war is the old generation gap playing itself out, which means that the noise we hear from social conservatives may simply be their fury at a world that's passing them by. The question for the rest of us is whether the Bush judicial appointees will burden America’s future with the constitutional shackles of the past.