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First Thoughts: The return of the culture wars

The return of the culture wars… DOMA case puts Bill Clinton in the spotlight… Ditto John Boehner… Immigration activity: McCain, Schumer hold press conference in Nogales, AZ at 3:00 pm ET, while Obama gives interview to Telemundo… Guess who’s campaigning in SC-1 run-off? Rick Santorum… And more Senate Madness!!!

Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images

Same-sex marriage supporters talk with same-sex marriage opponents in front of the Supreme Court on March 26, 2013 in Washington, DC, as the Court takes up the issue of gay marriage. The US Supreme Court on Tuesday heard arguments on the emotionally charged issue of gay marriage as it considers arguments that it should make history and extend equal rights to same-sex couples.

*** The return of the culture wars: There’s a truism in American politics: When the economy is struggling, the political conversation becomes mostly about the economy. And when it isn’t struggling, the conversation turns to … social and cultural issues. So not surprisingly, as the Dow Jones average reaches new highs and after last month’s very positive jobs report, this week’s political focus is on gay rights (which the Supreme Court considers again today), abortion (as North Dakota passed the country’s most restrictive abortion ban), and guns (as legislation comes to the Senate floor next month). But as Politico has noted, there’s a big twist to the latest installment of the culture wars: “The left is picking the fights and, for the most part, enjoying being on the right side of public opinion.” Indeed, a majority of Americans now support gay marriage; exit polls from the ’12 election showed that nearly six in 10 Americans believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases; and our Feb. 2013 NBC/WSJ poll found 61% of Americans saying they want stricter gun laws. Now that’s not to say that these issues are automatic winners for the left; after all, that gun legislation faces a very uncertain fate in the Senate. But, for the first time we can remember while covering Washington politics, these issues aren’t automatic losers for them. And that’s a significant development.

NBC's Mark Murray explains how former President Bill Clinton's transformation on same-sex marriage is a microcosm of the shift.

*** DOMA case puts Bill Clinton in the spotlight: The day after hearing oral arguments on California’s Prop. 8 gay-marriage ban, the Supreme Court today considers the Defense of Marriage Act. NBC’s Pete Williams previews the oral arguments. “An 83-year-old former IBM programmer is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down a law that cost her more than a quarter of a million dollars and deprived her, and thousands of other gay couples, of federal marriage benefits. At issue is the Defense of Marriage Act, known as DOMA, passed by overwhelming margins in both houses of Congress in 1996 and signed by President Bill Clinton. It bars federal agencies from recognizing the validity of same-sex marriages in the states where they are legal.” Politically, DOMA puts Clinton back into the spotlight. Earlier this month, the former president wrote a Washington Post op-ed saying that DOMA is discriminatory and should be overturned (although he didn’t directly apologize for signing it into law.) As the New York Times put it, “Rarely has a former president declared that an action he took in office violated the Constitution. But Mr. Clinton’s journey from signing the Defense of Marriage Act to repudiating it mirrors larger changes in society as same-sex marriage has gone from a fringe idea to one with a majority.”

*** Ditto John Boehner: The DOMA case puts House Speaker John Boehner in the political spotlight, too. As we wrote yesterday, Speaker John Boehner and House Republicans spent millions to defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court after the Obama administration said it would no longer do so. Despite this defense, Boehner’s office was silent yesterday as the court heard oral arguments in the Prop. 8 case -- instead sending out emails to reporters on the Keystone pipeline and Obama’s Organizing for Action. Will it remain quiet today? Boehner did answer reporters’ questions on DOMA last week, however. “DOMA was a law passed by the House and Senate and signed into law by President Clinton. And in our system of government the administration doesn't get to decide what's constitutional, the Supreme Court does,” Boehner said, per NBC’s Frank Thorp. “And our financing the lawsuit was to make sure that the proper forum was used to make sure that we know what's constitutional and what isn't.”

*** On the border: Turning to immigration, four of the bipartisan senators working on comprehensive immigration reform legislation -- John McCain, Chuck Schumer, Jeff Flake, and Michael Bennet -- are holding a press conference at 3:00 pm ET in Nogales, AZ. The purpose of presser and the border visit, one Senate aide tells First Read, is to hear directly from the U.S. Border Patrol and area stakeholders about what is working and what isn’t along the U.S.-Mexico border. These senators aren’t expected to unveil their bipartisan legislation until Congress returns the week of April 8, but the Arizona Republic quotes McCain saying on Monday that he can’t promise anything. “‘I can't guarantee anything,’ McCain said after an afternoon town-hall-style meeting with constituents in northwest Phoenix. ‘We're still in serious negotiations, but we have made progress. We are negotiating now, as we are in recess.’”

*** Obama sits down for Telemundo interview: That press conference on the border isn’t the only immigration-related event today. Telemundo’s Lori Montenegro sits down with President Obama at the White House to talk about immigration reform and other issues. The interview airs on Telemundo beginning at 6:30 pm ET. (Obama also gives an interview today to Univision.)

*** Guess who’s campaigning in South Carolina? With the Mark Sanford-vs.-Curtis Bostic run-off in South Carolina taking place next week on April 2, 2016 presidential politics is getting in the mix as Rick Santorum today campaigns with Bostic. Santorum endorsed the GOP candidate yesterday.

*** Senate Madness -- results from yesterday’s contests: In the 19th Century region, #2 seed John C. Calhoun and Thomas Hart Benton advanced…. In the 20th Century region, Everett Dirksen bested Margaret Chase Smith, and William J. Fulbright moved on as well… In the Modern Era, Daniel Patrick Moynihan advanced, as did Bob Dole… And in the Mixed Era, Henry Cabot Lodge and Arthur Vandenberg moved on. See here and here for the vote totals between yesterday’s #2-vs.-#15 and #7-vs.-#10 match ups.

*** Senate Madness -- today’s first-round match ups: Today, our contests pit the #5 and #12 seeds: Sam Houston vs. Hamilton Fish, Huey Long vs. Richard Russell, Hubert Humphrey vs. Daniel Inouye, and Wayne Morse vs. George Norris. And they also pit the #4 and #13 seeds: Stephen Douglas vs. Daniel Voorhees, Joe McCarthy vs. John Sherman Cooper, Strom Thurmond vs. Ed Brooke, and Robert La Follette vs. Robert Morris. Click here and here to vote for your most consequential senator!!!

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