Social issues, should Republicans re-calibrate?

John’s post on social issues, “Where Do Republicans Go From Here? The Social Issues” appears to be receiving plenty of attention, and deservedly so. Here is the prescription with which John concludes the post:

1) Don’t emphasize abortion, but don’t walk away from the issue, either, when issues legitimately arise, as with respect to public funding. When pressed on the subject, don’t be defensive, but respond by pointing out the Democrats’ extremism. 2) Take a big-tent approach to gay marriage that emphasizes the need to resolve the issue democratically, not by judicial decree, and that makes it clear that there is room in the party for both those who favor and those who oppose gay marriage. 3) Bring welfare back as a political issue, by pointing out the extraordinary amount of money that we currently spend on means-tested programs, the waste and fraud that is endemic to those programs, and the social damage that is done by them.

It’s a good prescription, I think, and I certainly agree that Republicans must provide room for those on both sides of the gay marriage debate.

But a friend points out that John’s prescription doesn’t differ materially from the approach Mitt Romney took during his unsuccessful campaign. Romney didn’t emphasize abortion or gay marriage; he never tried to read those who favor gay marriage out of the Republican Party; and he talked about the explosion of welfare in the form of food stamps.

Yet, Team Obama still successfully pushed its “war on women” theme. And Romney still lost big among young voters in part because he is not as socially liberal as President Obama.

In a way, the problem Republicans face with these voters — unmarried women and millenials — is similar to the problem they face with Hispanics. Republicans can re-calibrate their positions on immigration, birth control/abortion, and gay marriage. But they will never match the Democrats, who will always be able to find some cutting edge goody or grievance (not to mention some ill-advised statement by some Republican somewhere) about which to posture.

To be sure, re-calibration can marginally improve Republican standing with Hispanics, unmarried women, and milenials. But in the case of social issues, at least, that marginal improvement would come at a big cost — the erosion of support among evangelicals.

Abortion and gay marriage did not replace welfare and crime as the “social issues” component of the “three-legged stool” just to provide symmetry. These issues rose to prominence because, to millions of conservative voters, they are more important than any other set of issues.

Mitt Romney appears to have done pretty well with evangelicals without emphasizing the issues most important to them (we’ll see whether in-depth analyses confirm this). But a presidential candidate who re-calibrates much more than Romney did on social issues runs a serious risk of sustaining a serious loss of support among evangelicals in exchange for minimal gains among those who were turned off by the relatively innocuous Mitt Romney.

JOHN adds: I agree that Romney wasn’t far off from my prescriptions. The problem was that the party as a whole wasn’t on the same page. In particular, Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock did grievous harm, I think, to Romney and many other Republican candidates. Nor was the problem limited to a couple of flakes. Here in Minnesota, to take one instance, by far the most energy in this election cycle was generated by opponents of a ballot initiative to bar gay marriage. Turnout was, I believe, a record high, and as a result the Democrats recaptured both houses of the legislature from the GOP.

I also agree that on issues like abortion and gay marriage, the Democrats will always be able to appeal more strongly to those with liberal views. But my point is not that Republicans should adopt liberal views on the social issues and thereby compete for the votes of radical feminists, etc., but rather that by approaching the issues in a more modulated way, they can keep the votes of social conservatives while not alienating those in the middle. This is, to be sure, something of a balancing act, but I think it has become clear that the current perception, that Republicans as a party are on the rightward fringe of the social issues, is hurting the party with moderates. And hitting hard on the welfare issue potentially can help the GOP with both conservative and moderate voters; really, just about everyone except the hard left.

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