Mitch Daniels, Governor of Indiana and former director of OMB, has been making the rounds in Washington. Work and other commitments prevented me from meeting him. That’s unfortunate for me. Given the flaws of many who are mentioned as possible Republican candidates for president in 2012, Daniels seems well worth a look.
Daniels is pitching the notion that we may need a truce in divisive culture war controversies in order to deal with “survival issues” such as terrorism and debt. But Michael Gerson argues that Daniels is being naïve here. He asks: “Just how would avoiding fights on unrelated social issues make Democratic legislators more likely to vote for broad budget cuts and drastic entitlement reforms?”
Clearly, avoiding such fights would not produce that result. But it might well enable Republicans to become and remain more popular with moderate voters. And this, in turn, might give Republicans the majorities necessary to implement budget cuts and entitlement reforms.
It has also been pointed out that fights on culture war issues are not necessarily avoidable. Such battles inevitably arise, for example, when there is a Supreme Court vacancy. A Republican president must nominate someone who is pro-life or pro-abortion, or someone whose position is unknown. Republican Senators must vote up or down (and/or to filibuster or not filibuster) such nominees.
But Daniels’ point, I gather, is that Republicans ought not look for these fights. And given the practice during the judicial confirmation process of nominees not answering questions about where they stand on particular issues, it should be possible, even in this context, to avoid real bloodshed over social issues if a president is careful.
This doesn’t mean that Daniels’ call for a truce in the culture wars is good politics, given the importance of these issues to important elements of the Republican base — only that it might make sense as a governing strategy. But Gerson concludes that this approach may not be a political non-starter in the current environment:
It is difficult to imagine Daniels’s rejection of uplift, ideology and activism appealing to the country at most times. But maybe, at this particular time, we are a nation in need of fewer messiahs and more OMB directors.
JOHN adds: This is an interesting political question, I think. Over the last couple of decades, countless media/political voices have urged Republicans to abandon social conservatism on political grounds, i.e., the need to appeal to upscale suburbanites. This has always struck me as odd, since the social issues have consistently represented a net gain for Republicans–which is why, I assume, liberal commentators are so anxious for Republicans to abandon them. So in the past, my view has always been that Republican and conservative politicians should keep the social issues as one leg of the proverbial three-legged stool.
The present moment, however, represents a departure. It may well be that a consensus exists in favor of reduced federal spending and economic power that dwarfs any plurality on the social issues. So should conservative candidates forget about abortion, gay marriage and so on? The answer depends, obviously, on the particular district in question.
In general, though, it strikes me as a matter of emphasis. I do think that we are in a moment where conservatives should emphasize constitutional government and reduced spending first, and national security second; social issues third, if at all. Last summer I turned on the radio just in time to hear Tom Emmer, now the Republican nominee for governor of Minnesota, talking to a crowd at the Minnesota State Fair. He took questions from the audience; someone asked his position on gay marriage. I loved his answer:
I don’t care about gay marriage. I’m here to talk about jobs. We need to get our economy back on the track, and that’s why I’m running for governor. I’m all about jobs.
Look, like 75% of Minnesotans, I’m not in favor of gay marriage, but that’s not why I’m here. Let’s talk about getting our economy going again.
Emmer is, in fact, a solid social conservative, but that’s the way I think most Republicans should address the social issues in 2010.
SCOTT adds: The Republican Party was founded in opposition to “those twin relics of barbarism — Polygamy, and Slavery.” Emmer’s response may or may not be good politics, but serious concern with what John refers to as “the social issues” is deeply embedded in the principles and the history of the Republican Party.