The pattern in these issues is their pure symbolism. Partial-birth abortions account for fewer than one in 1,000 pregnancy terminations, but debating them makes pro-choicers look extreme. Gay Boy Scouts aren't exactly pouring out of the closet, but defending the innocence of youngsters makes great politics. Flag-burning is virtually nonexistent, but it's easy to score points against senators who refuse on constitutional grounds to ban it. If conservatives were serious about legislating on these issues, as opposed to wedgislating, they'd offer amendments to ban second-trimester abortions, shield companies from discrimination lawsuits by gay employees, and expand the definition of treason.
Perversely, wedgislation is a natural outgrowth of democracy. The framers of the U.S. Constitution envisioned the Senate as a gathering of esteemed men chosen by state governments to apply their wisdom to issues their constituents didn't necessarily understand. Over time, the selection of senators was delegated directly to citizens. As public literacy, knowledge, and communications improved, people thought of elections more as referendums on issues than as transfers of voting proxies to wise men. Politicians campaigned not just for offices but for mandates. The wisest candidate didn't necessarily get the job, but most voters got the political program they wanted.
As information networks gained breadth and speed, the feedback loop accelerated. Legislators spent less time completing the work they'd been assigned in the last election and more time preparing for the next one. The mindset of strategic efficiency, exported from the economic to the political marketplace, refined private polling from an observational to an engineering science. Politicians learned not how to serve or honor the electorate but how to placate, charm, and inflame it. The more attention they paid to the opportunities suggested by this week's polls, the less they paid to the will expressed in last year's ballots. In theory, elections were a means to legislation; in practice, legislation was just another means to election. The framers' system of accountability had outsmarted itself.
From this historical perspective, wedgislation is, as literally as possible, a democratic cancer. It is electioneering run amok—overrunning the legislature, thwarting cooperation, crowding out the nation's urgent business, and smothering a more considered interpretation and implementation of the people's will. Wedgislators imagine that they're doing God's work by plaguing the enemy. But the plague is the greater threat. If each election resolves nothing more than the numerical baseline for the next, what's the point? "We have a moral obligation to deliver the agenda we were elected the majority to achieve," Sen. Lott declared in a memo to fellow Republicans last weekend. To get there, he argued, "We must begin to wage the war today for the election in 2002." And 2004, and 2006, and 2008 … It's a good thing we're not paying these people to get anything done.