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."
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.