This article originally appeared online at Politico on March 2, 2011.
Right grapples with social ‘truce’
By Alexander Burns
Social conservative leaders in the Republican Party are coming to grips with a new reality ahead of the 2012 presidential primary:
It’s not all about them.
For the first time in three decades, a wide-open Republican presidential primary is unfolding in the shadow of an economic recession. That means even in the heavily socially conservative GOP, voters are more focused on the pocketbook than the Good Book.
A host of leaders on the cultural right told POLITICO they don’t intend to fight it. Instead, they hope to protect their role in the campaign by ensuring that social issues are part of a larger conservative message.
“You have to address the economy right now. It needs to stop, because it’s immoral what they’re doing on spending,” said Kim Lehman, the former president of Iowa Right to Life. “To think that our dollar doesn’t affect families is nonsense. As a social conservative, that’s also part of being focused on protecting families.”
Social conservatives are quick to emphasize that the issues they care about most — abortion, the definition of marriage, school choice, to name a few — haven’t gone away. Indeed, support for conservative stances on those issues is so widespread in the GOP that it’s hardly up for debate.
So even if the economy is at the top of the agenda, candidates still need to cross a “threshold” of credibility on social issues, said Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser, whose group is dedicated to fighting abortion.
“We’re not saying this has to be the only issue,” Dannenfelser said. “There’s not an insistence that it has to be No. 1, that it has to be made No. 1, when it defies the reality of the moment.”
“We’re saying it has to be part of the issue set that is vital,” she continued. “It has to be communicated as a set of issues — fiscal issues, foreign policy, social issues.”
That’s not necessarily an easy line for would-be candidates to walk. Social issues may not be center stage in 2012, but the voters and interest groups that care about them most still demand respect as part of the Republican coalition.
That’s why Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels famously landed himself in political trouble when he called for a “truce” on social issues.
Daniels’s “truce” comment — widely taken as a suggestion that both parties set aside the culture war to tackle the national debt — has become a dirty word in some conservative circles. Family Research Council President Tony Perkins told POLITICO that Daniels would be a “nonstarter with social conservatives.”
Other potential presidential candidates, including Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, have flirted with a Daniels-like backlash by stating too plainly that the economy is the overwhelming political concern of the moment.
For some on the right, those kinds of comments are unacceptable. Dannenfelser said her group has a “no-truce policy in our candidate selection process.”
But as Daniels’s stature as an economic messenger has risen, so, too, has the amount of maneuvering room he seems to have with social conservatives.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who described Daniels’s initial comment as “heartbreaking,” told reporters on a recent conference call that the Hoosier may actually have been stating the obvious — that the economy will be the driving force in the 2012 campaign.
“I understand that the issues that may be front and center are economic issues,” said Huckabee, adding: “It’s possible for conservatives to walk and chew gum at the same time.”
Top activists concede that social issues are likely to be dealt with in a different fashion — and likely for more selective audiences — in a campaign dominated by the economy.
“I think you have a situation right now where the economy is such a huge problem that most of the candidates are speaking to that for general audiences,” said Oran Smith, who heads the South Carolina-based Palmetto Family Council. “When they speak to social conservative groups, I always hear a really strong articulation of their views on social issues.”
The decisive test is likely to come in the early primary states of Iowa — where Huckabee’s background as an ordained minister helped propel him to victory in 2008 — and South Carolina.
In Iowa, social conservative groups have set up a series of events that will put 2012 hopefuls to the test. The Family Leader, a group led by former Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Vander Plaats, has invited presidential contenders to Iowa for a series of speeches on cultural issues. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty kicked off the series last month.
Next week, the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition will host a gathering where potential presidential candidates will mingle with hundreds of activists.
Steve Scheffler, who heads the IFFC, estimated that “99 percent of the people are going to be people who will go to the caucus.”
In that most exacting of social conservative states, it turns out that activists are looking for the
same thing that social conservatives want elsewhere — a candidate who gives social issues their due, even if there’s no top-tier candidate putting them at the core of the campaign.
Former Iowa House Speaker Danny Carroll, who sits on the board of the Family Leader, said what social conservative voters want from their nominee in 2012 is “balance.”
“You’ve got to have a good foundation on social and moral issues to be competitive, not only in Iowa but in the country,” Carroll said. “The people who are concerned about those social issues are also the people who are trying to earn a living and support their families.”
Conservative leaders say there’s no obvious choice in the 2012 race, so far, for so-called values voters. Several praised Pawlenty for his early courtship of social conservatives. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum also has emphasized social issues in his message, but he has a more challenging path to the nomination.
Former Christian Coalition Executive Director Ralph Reed, who is chairman of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, confidently predicted that the GOP field would end up reflecting the preferences of social conservatives.
“I’m a supply-sider when it comes to politics,” Reed said. “Once they see where the supply of voters is and what they care about, they’re going to find that they have to have a broad, comprehensive message that encompasses both the cultural agenda and the economic agenda.”
While it could potentially prove frustrating to social conservatives that there isn’t a Huckabee-like figure in the race — at least, not yet — there’s also no one whose candidacy would be total anathema to them.
In other words, there’s not another Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor who attempted to win the Republican nomination in 2008 on his anti-terrorism credentials, despite holding liberal views on abortion and gay rights.
That unsuccessful plan could be viewed as a cautionary tale for any candidate who thinks he orshe can focus purely on the economy without even attempting to satisfy social conservatives.
“Giuliani, his plane landed in Columbia, S.C. — first question out of the box from a local reporter was his stand on abortion. He didn’t handle that question very well,” recalled Smith, the South Carolina activist. “I can’t think of anyone right now who would have that sort of nonappeal, that the minute they start to campaign, they would get a backlash.”
Of Daniels, Smith said: “I think he’s probably going to have to recover from a couple of statements he made early on.”