The Lost Cause
Republicans like Rick Perry and Jim DeMint still care about social issues. But voters don't.
Who was to blame? The courts and the "secular left," argues DeMint. They were the ones arguing "that moral behavior cannot be required, that abberant individuals must be coddled not punished, that marriage is nothing special, that homosexuality is no different than heterosexuality." How to fix it? There are plenty of ideas in here, but the big one is a closer relationship between religion and politics. "The constitution protects churches from government interference," writes DeMint, "and it is time to encourage churches to participate in the political process."
It's hard to say that this stuff is from another time. DeMint was writing this only three iPhone models ago. But 2008 was a different era, with different obsessions, and unrecognizable wedge issues. One of DeMint's old obsessions was the legal challenges and boycott threats against the Boy Scouts of America. The Scouts, he writes, were clearly right to exclude gay scoutmasters. "Not only are homosexual men more prone to sexually molest boys, they are prone to seek out organizations, like the Boy Scouts, where they have more intimate experiences with boys."
Yes, the Great Scouts Controversy of the '90s and 00s. It's interesting that DeMint focuses on it, because in 2008, Rick Perry wrote an entire book about it. Titled On My Honor, resurrected this week in a Dana Milbank column about the Texas governor's views, the book is part tribute, part manifesto about how America's lost its way. "The so-called 'War on the Scouts,'" he writes, "is a microcosm of a larger phenomenon, a 'culture war' that has been tearing at the seams of our society for forty years."
Perry found a way to blame critics of the Scouts for an obscene number of American maladies. The cause of the problem, of course, was the gay lobby. "The radical homosexual movement seeks societal normalization of their sexual activity," he wrote. "I respect their right to engage in the individual business of their choosing, but they must respect the right of millions in society to refuse to normalize their behavior."
DeMint's book is still obscure. Perry's isn't. As he launched his campaign and transformed into the GOP front-runner, Time's Mark Benjamin noticed this passage:
I can sympathize with those who believe sexual preference is genetic. It may be so, but it remains unproved. Even if it were, this does not mean we are ultimately not responsible for the active choices we make. Even if an alcoholic is powerless over alcohol once it enters his body, he still makes a choice to drink. And, even if someone is attracted to a person of the same sex, he or she still makes a choice to engage in sexual activity with someone of the same gender.
Benjamin was surprised that Perry hadn't been asked about this. Why be surprised? There's just not the interest in social issues that there was before the economy collapsed. And the change has done wonders for the GOP. In the 2010 exit poll, an electorate that was handing the House of Representatives over to Republicans was also warming to gay marriage—still unpopular, but 30 percent of voters who picked the GOP said they supported it.
That wasn't the issue the election was fought over. Voters said that they still had a negative view of the GOP, by a 53-41 margin. But 41 percent of them said they supported the Tea Party movement; 30 percent said they opposed it. It was good for Republicans to be rebranded as the party that cared about the economy and nothing but.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.