Do Democrats engage in soul-searching after they lose an election? Maybe I miss it because I’m not a Democrat, but it doesn’t seem that they do. After John Kerry lost in 2004, did Democrats agonize over whether they should stop opposing the war in Iraq, or become pro-abortion? When Democrats were “shellacked,” as President Obama put it, in 2010, did they debate whether they should come up with a coherent plan to deal with the debt and start adopting budgets? Not that I recall.
We Republicans are different. Whenever we lose an election, you can be sure two things will happen: one group, which consists mostly of Democrats but includes some Republicans, will say it is time to give up on the social issues. Another group (this time all Republicans) will say that the party needs to nominate purer conservatives. These critiques come from the left and the right, respectively.
As for nominating purer conservatives, I see no evidence that the 2012 electorate rejected Mitt Romney and other Republicans because it hungered for more hard-line right-wing nominees. I wrote more about this here.
But with respect to the social issues, I think the time has come for Republicans to refine our approach. Let’s start with a bit of history.
Contemporary conservatism is largely defined by Ronald Reagan, who united various strands of the movement in the “three-legged stool”: economic conservatism, manifested by free-market policies; foreign policy conservatism, manifested by a strong national defense; and social conservatism, manifested by…what? In Reagan’s time, the main social issues were crime and welfare. It is easy to forget, at a distance of more than 30 years, how large a role these issues played in Reagan’s career and in the political debates of the time. Politically, conservatives won the battles over crime and welfare. Our cities (save only Detroit) were saved by tough law enforcement, and AFDC was repealed in the historic welfare reform act. Since the 1990s, neither crime nor welfare has figured prominently as an issue in national elections.
Starting in the 1990s and 2000s, when people talked about the social issues, they basically meant abortion. Republicans had generally opposed abortion all along, but it was a secondary issue; politicians like Reagan rarely talked about it. But with crime and welfare mostly off the table as political issues, abortion became the issue that defined social conservatism. Then, within the last decade, gay marriage–an idea that was virtually non-existent in Reagan’s time–has suddenly become a prominent issue. When we talk about the social issues today, we mean, pretty much exclusively, abortion and gay marriage.
It seems obvious that the evolution of social issues from crime and welfare to abortion and gay marriage has hurt the Republican Party. Crime and welfare were serious public policy issues that could be, and were, debated from empirical premises. Abortion and gay marriage are moral, largely religious issues, and are less amenable to public policy debate. They are, for reasons that are entirely understandable, governed more by emotion than by empirical data. A great many people are heartily sick of these issues and wish they would go away, while others view them as matters of moral duty that are key to the ultimate survival of our civilization. Whether you agree with the latter perspective or not, it seems clear that contemporary conservatives have reached a dead end in their approach to the social issues. If we want to do better in future elections, we need, I think, to recalibrate our approach–by which I do not mean adopting liberal positions.
It seems useful to begin with the observation that abortion and gay marriage stand on very different footings. Abortion is an accomplished fact, and has been since the early 1970s. Millions upon millions of babies have been legally aborted since Roe v. Wade, for better or worse. With abortion established as a constitutional right, the overwhelming majority of office-holders have little or nothing to do with it, one way or another. It is beyond me why any voter should care about what a candidate for the House or the Senate, or for governor or a state legislature, thinks about abortion. It is equally hard to understand why such candidates would make support for abortion, or opposition to it, a significant part of their platforms.
The issue remains alive in large part because Democrats are constantly warning that Republican candidates will do away with “a woman’s right to choose.” This was, of course, part of the absurd war on women theme. But to be fair, Democrats get away with such efforts partly because many Republican candidates insist on talking about abortion as if it were a live issue. Since candidates on both sides raise the issue largely for political reasons, it makes sense to try to frame it in the most politically useful way. What does that mean for Republicans?
First, there is no reason to think that abortion is a toxic issue for conservatives. Contrary to what most people expected twenty years ago, public opinion has been trending steadily away from approval of abortion. Among the young, in particular, support for abortion is not strong. Consequently, Republicans should not hesitate to take a conservative position on those occasions when abortion is a legitimate issue, which will chiefly involve questions of public funding or, under Obamacare and the like, insurance mandates. On the other hand, however, most voters do not want to vote for candidates whose main reason for running appears to be opposition to abortion. This makes sense, since abortion will have little or nothing to do with most candidates’ duties, if elected, and voters want candidates to focus on the issues that affect them. Consequently, it makes little sense for most Republicans to make issues relating to abortion a significant part of their campaigns.
If questioned about abortion, conservative candidates should focus on the areas where liberal positions are extreme. Thus, for example, a candidate could say:
I have always been opposed to abortion on moral grounds. Frankly, however, my opinion isn’t very relevant since the Supreme Court has held that there is a constitutional right to abortion. But there are a few areas that are still open for discussion. One of them is infanticide. It seems to me that no matter how we feel about abortion, we ought to be able to agree that babies that are born alive shouldn’t be killed. And yet the Democrats haven’t been willing to join us in opposing infanticide. President Obama voted against a bill that would have outlawed infanticide when he was a state senator in Illinois, and most Democrats, including my opponent, are in favor of partial-birth abortion, which is nothing but infanticide under a different name. So I suggest you ask my opponent: is he willing to buck his party and come out against infanticide, including partial birth abortion?
If Republicans consistently answer questions about abortion in this manner, or something similar, reporters will stop asking them. One more thing: no politician should ever try to instruct voters on gynecology or obstetrics. Just don’t do it. Ever.
Gay marriage is often lumped together with abortion, but in reality, it is a very different issue. For one thing, while there is no specifically conservative case for abortion, there is a conservative case for gay marriage. For another, while popular opinion is turning away from abortion, it is rapidly falling in line behind gay marriage. In my view, there is little reason to stand in front of this particular locomotive. It is true that the family is in crisis and our civilization may well be going down the drain, but not because of gay marriage; rather, because close to half of all American children are now born to unmarried women.
Republicans can take a big-tent approach to gay marriage by emphasizing process. If the time comes when a majority of people want to recognize gay marriage, so be it. At the end of the day, voters can define marriage in whatever way they choose. Republicans, meanwhile, can unite in opposing any resolution of the issue by judicial fiat. We can say: some Republicans are for gay marriage, some Republicans are against it; but we all agree that the issue should be resolved by the people and their elected representatives. While the party takes a hands-off approach, private groups, churches and others, can try to influence public opinion in one direction or the other, a task that is better suited to them than to politicians.
It has been some years since the social issues have been better than a wash for Republicans. But that can change, if Republican politicians shift the focus from abortion and gay marriage to welfare. Welfare has been mostly off the radar screen since Congress successfully reformed the federal welfare system in the mid-1990s. Since then, however, there has been backsliding. Today, I believe there are more people receiving federal welfare benefits than at any time in our history, approximately 100 million. The food stamp program alone has enrolled 47 million, and food stamps now account for 80% of what is euphemistically known as the “farm bill.” And that isn’t the worst of it: the Obama administration has aggressively tried to recruit illegal immigrants into the food stamp program. Currently, we are spending around $1 trillion per year on federal means-tested programs, double what we spend on national defense.
Profligate welfare spending is as damaging to the family today as it was when Republicans campaigned against it in the 1970s and 1980s. The single-parent lifestyle that is so lauded by liberals is enabled in large part by the largesse of federal and state welfare programs. Families are optional to the extent that welfare is a viable alternative. That’s the real Life of Julia.
As Paul has noted, Rick Santorum’s principal contribution to the primary season was his ability to explain the relationship between economic and social issues. There is a second connection that Republicans can draw, too: as soon as anyone attacks wasteful and destructive welfare programs, the refrain is, how about corporate welfare? In fact, it is Democrats, not Republicans, who are the party of corporate cronyism and corruption. Most voters haven’t figured that out because of the Democrat/media campaign of disinformation, but if Republicans extend the welfare argument with a pledge to end all corporate welfare (by which I mean eliminating subsidies, not disallowing tax deductions for legitimate businesses expenses), they will accomplish multiple goals, all of them desirable.
So that’s my prescription for the social issues: 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.
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