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Aborted Debate

Moral conflict just ain't what it used to be.

WASHINGTON--It seems so long ago. In the weeks after the 2004 election, one exit poll finding lit up the political world. The survey showed that "moral values" were the single most important issue in the election, narrowly outstripping even the economy and terrorism.

The moral values voters went 80 percent for George W. Bush, and conservative commentators scolded the dreaded liberal media for missing the central dynamic of the election.

"Elites Out of Touch With America's Heart and Soul," crowed the now-defunct New York Sun. Matthew Spalding, the Heritage Foundation's normally careful scholar on religious questions, was also caught up in the enthusiasm of the moment. The election, he said, showed that "cultural liberalism is increasingly unattractive to a significant and growing segment of the American electorate."

Spalding concluded: "If this trend continues, and continues to solidify, the Democrats will never again be a majority party in the United States."

Put aside that pollsters of various ideological stripes subsequently decided that the exit poll question was flawed. In 2004, so many on all sides just knew that cultural and moral issues were the wave of the future.

But a funny thing happened on the road to the revival tent. The crash of the economy has concentrated the minds of Americans on other things.

Moral conflict just isn't what it used to be.

We know this thanks to an extremely useful exercise by the Pew Research Center that has not received enough attention. In a survey released in late May, Pew offered respondents the list of issues that appeared on the 2004 exit poll and asked them which one issue would matter most if they had to vote for president now.

The interest in moral values has collapsed--from 22 percent in the exit poll (and 27 percent in Pew's own post-2004 election survey) to a mere 10 percent. Concern over the economy and jobs more than doubled, from 20 percent in the 2004 exit poll to 50 percent in the new survey. The other issues that gained substantial ground were health care and education.

The drop in concern over moral values was particularly sharp among older working-class voters who have been trending Republican for years.

Moral issues, said Andrew Kohut, the president of the Pew Research Center, are "less pressing, especially to the populist conservatives who are feeling great economic pressures these days."

Few recent survey findings are more enlightening about what's happening in American politics--or what is likely to happen to the debate over the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor.

Conservative moral values voters have become the heart of the Republican coalition, and if their ranks are shrinking, so is the GOP's base. And it is no accident that President Obama takes every opportunity to shift the public debate to issues--the economy, health care and education--that the populist conservatives Kohut describes are most likely to find appealing.

It's also striking that while some anti-abortion groups issued stinging press releases against Sotomayor, her own views on abortion remain a mystery--to the consternation of abortion rights supporters. Both sides in the abortion debate want to have a confrontation that Sotomayor may not give them the opportunity to stage.

Thus did Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, joke to The Washington Post that her organization and the National Right to Life Committee had finally found common ground in their shared desire to have the nominee pressed for her views about abortion.

But since the vast majority of Americans are not clamoring for this particular battle, Sotomayor's opponents are likely to give up on the moral issues and pick a fight over her views on affirmative action, one issue that might resonate with white conservative populists worried about their economic standing.

Anticipating this, Obama's advisers are already talking at least as much about Sotomayor's economic background--her inspiring up-from-the-working-class story appeals across racial and ethnic lines--as about her Hispanic roots.

Sen. Ted Kaufman, D-Del., a member of the Judiciary Committee, worked on every Supreme Court confirmation since the 1970s as an adviser to Joe Biden when the vice president served in the Senate. Kaufman said in an interview that he devoutly hopes we have seen "the last battle of the culture wars" and that the debate over Sotomayor will come to be viewed as "the first in a different environment."

With moral values voters scarce on the ground, he's likely to get his wish.

E.J. Dionne, Jr. is the author of the recently published Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right. He is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University.

By E.J. Dionne, Jr.