The Lost Cause
Republicans like Rick Perry and Jim DeMint still care about social issues. But voters don't.
When you follow around Republican candidates for president and listen to the questions they get, something's missing. The voters at the South Carolina meet-and-greets are asking about Boeing and unions. The voters at the Dunkin' Donuts in New Hampshire are asking about the EPA. The voters in line for fried butter in Iowa are asking about jobs. Even the red-faced people in videos of congressional town halls are asking about the debt.
It's an awkward question, but we've got to ask: What about social issues? One measly three-year economic depression, and voters don't care about social issues anymore?
Nope, not as much as they used to. Polling shows us that voters are far, far more worried about the economy—debt, taxes, jobs, health care, everything—than about social issues. Republicans have followed suit. That's why groups like the National Organization for Marriage and the Susan B. Anthony List have to scare candidates out from under the desk with pledges, demanding that they put their social issue stances on the record. (The media salute your patriotic efforts.)
Even Robby George is climbing on board. On Monday, George will join Sen. Jim DeMint and Rep. Steve King as a moderator at a five-candidate "freedom summit" in South Carolina. In a Friday interview with ABC News, George—a co-founder of NOM, widely recognized as the intellectual paterfamilias of the "traditional marriage" movement—didn't even mention social issues. "The issue that's in front of everyone's mind today is the economic issue, the debt issue, and the jobs issue," said George.
Does that mean George and DeMint will punt on social issues at their own event? Check back on Monday afternoon. All I know is that the Great Recession has turned the culture wars into a two-track affair. Gay marriage, abortion, and the other bugaboos of the right aren't discussed as much as they used to be. That's a little annoying for conservatives. But because these issues are so ignored, Republicans are having an easier time winning power, then acting on them when they win power. We've seen a new wave of abortion restrictions and (with the big exception of New York) successful anti-gay marriage campaigns in the states, but who's been paying attention?
The move away from social issues has changed the GOP's balance of power by changing who the media takes seriously, and what the media focuses on. Take DeMint as an example. He's written three books, the last two all about the size of government and the birth of the Tea Party. He has firmed up his reputation as the party's leading fiscal conservative. But what about that first book? It's all about social issues. As such, it's a useful little reminder of what the movement still thinks about this stuff.
The thesis of that book, Why We Whisper, is that cultural political correctness is oppressing conservatives. "Because of changes in laws and court rulings," writes DeMint (he shares a writing credit with J. David Woodward, who holds the Strom Thurmond Chair in Government at Clemson University), "Americans are now hesitant to say 'it is wrong' to have sex before marriage or out of marriage, to have a child without being married, to have an abortion, and to have sex with someone of the same gender." If anyone's about to pull the trigger on an article that calls DeMint a "libertarian," or a leader of the GOP's "libertarian wing," be advised: He blames "a libertarian 'anything goes' ethic in regard to lifestyle" as a reason for the "corruption of social civility."
DeMint (and Woodward) take on everything that the ACLU and the "secular left" hold dear, but one argument keeps coming up: If society doesn't condemn the gay lifestyle, we're doomed. "The arguments against legitimizing the homosexual lifestyle with the institution of marriage are irrefutable," writes DeMint. "Many are not willing to listen to the truth about homosexuality, but this lifestyle is notoriously unhealthy and destructive, with huge financial costs to society."
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.