It may be oxymoronic, yet appropriate, to suggest that Americans are “clearly confused.” Either that, or they’re using most of their energy trying to manipulate everyone else within earshot.

Last week, another reprisal of the gay marriage amendment fizzled in the Senate. For some politicians, the ensuing rhetoric characterized the loss as a prelude to the end of the world. Said David Ritter, a Republican senator from Louisiana: “I don’t believe there’s any issue that’s more important than this one.”

Yes, the marriage question does carry considerable weight, but surely Ritter – whose state suffered phenomenal catastrophe last year when Hurricane Katrina descended upon it – can’t be serious. What happened to abortion? Most folks who keep up with current events would assume that was the most important issue for Ritter and Co. At least, that’s what they were saying a few months ago.

Never fear: That’s what they’ll be saying again soon, if they think they need to do so to re-energize their supporters. After all, hot-button issues sell votes. While liberals may pander to their assumed base by rhapsodizing over organized labor, education, minority rights and various entitlement programs, conservatives go giddy over abortion, gay marriage, stem cell research and tax cuts for the wealthy. And anytime one group or another is flagging in the opinion polls, the threatened bunch will push the button most likely, at the moment, to incite a reaction.

Despite Ritter’s stupid comment, abortion is still a key issue for conservatives, especially those who object to it on religious grounds. But now that two new justices have been seated, they feel confident future rulings on abortion will go their way, and they can safely move on to other concerns. On both counts, they may be disappointed. Those who followed the confirmation hearings closely for Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito will recall the emphasis was on adhering strictly to the constitution and shunning the “activist” label that attaches to those who venture into new frontiers.

Because Bush appointed them and because they’re Catholic, some people presume these two men will be conservative on all things, but that’s not necessarily the case. The Constitution, after all, wasn’t a particularly conservative document; when written, it was considered by many to be quite progressive. The truth will only be known when the opinions are written, and what a layman might consider a sacrosanct aspect of American law might be viewed through a different prism by men like Alito and Roberts, who appear well-versed in every nuance of the legal system. And both men can afford to rule according to conscience; with appointments for life, they have little to lose by rendering decisions against the wishes of their supporters (nothing, at any rate, except the right to take communion in certain parishes).

But if the public can’t necessarily get a fix on personal opinions of justices, neither can they know conclusively what their elected officials think or believe. Many public servants have revealed themselves as amenable to all forms of prostitution – whatever it takes to get re-elected, even if that means flip-flopping, waffling or outright lying to voters.

Not long ago, a one-time loyalist produced an audiotape on which Bush bristled at attempts by ultra-conservative voters to box him in on the gay marriage issue. Bush indicated he had no interest in harassing gays or scapegoating them – in other words, gay marriage was a non-issue, as far as he was concerned. But publicly, at other times, he foments for the amendment – probably not because he’s especially repelled by the notion of same-sex marriage, but because his embattled Republican colleagues in Congress demand that he at least appear so.

Can Bush have it both ways? Apparently he can, and so can other politicians, because a lot of voters base their decisions on what candidates say, rather than what they do. Or more accurately, they base their decisions on what the candidates seem to say.

For instance, Bush garnered a high number of Catholic and evangelical Christian votes mainly because he implied he would put an end to abortion. But the procedure is still legal, and it’s a fairly safe bet it will be legal when he leaves office. Paradoxically, he has presided two wars in which thousands of people have died; thumbed his nose at environmental degradation; turned a blind eye on torture of prisoners and the death penalty; cut taxes for the rich while the poor get poorer; and seated cronies that made figurative abortions out of national tragedies like Hurricane Katrina. These are all actions that should produce loud outcries of objection from most Catholics and many evangelicals.

As with abortion, gay marriage ban proponents can, for the benefit of like-minded constituents, point to the record and capitalize on their apparent advocacy. Yet no amendment is forthcoming, and those who understand what it takes to change the constitution doubt it ever will be.

Maybe it’s time to vote for some folks who prioritize other serious issues – like the war in Iraq, poverty, AIDS or the environment – and see if they keep their promises any better than the current bunch.