Matt Lewis

Why Republicans usually win on social issues (and why this helps Rick Santorum)

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Matt K. Lewis
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      Matt K. Lewis

      Matt K. Lewis is a senior contributor to The Daily Caller, and a contributing editor for The Week. He is a respected commentator on politics and cultural issues, and has been cited by major publications such as The Washington Post and The New York Times. Matt is from Myersville, MD and currently resides in Alexandria, VA. Follow Matt K. Lewis on Twitter <a>@mattklewis</a>.

On CNN Sunday morning, Rep. Ron Paul, who — for all the “small-government” conservative talk — harbors an odd infatuation for Mitt Romney — implied that social issues are “a losing position.” In this regard, Paul, a paleoconservative (a nearly-extinct species most known for losing national elections), seems to have a short memory.

As Jeffrey Bell’s forthcoming book (per the Wall Street Journal’s review) notes,

Social issues were nonexistent in the period 1932 to 1964. … The Republican Party won two presidential elections out of nine, and they had the Congress for all of four years in that entire period.

. . . When social issues came into the mix—I would date it from the 1968 election . . . the Republican Party won seven out of 11 presidential elections.

(Emphasis mine.)

As much as moderate Republicans and cosmopolitan conservatives might lament the resurrection of the culture wars (which were foisted upon us, and appear to have been rekindled once again by liberal overreach), they were electorally fruitful for the GOP.

What is more, the notion that running on the economy (what Mr. Romney presumably seems comfortable doing) is a panacea, is dubious. The economy appears to be recovering (at least, the unemployment rate is dropping), a point which will obviously make it harder, should the trend continue, to oust Obama.

Even more to the point, history does not seem indicate that a struggling economy — regardless of who is to blame — or who currently occupies the White House — will ultimately benefit the Republican candidate in a general election. (This, of course, is controversial. Jimmy Carter’s handling of the economy was surely one cause of his 1980 defeat, but would he have been defeated had it not been for the Iranian hostages?)

The trouble for Republican presidential hopefuls trying to make hay of a struggling economy is that, when times are hard, liberals can always out-promise and out-class-warfare their adversaries. Thus, national elections that focus instead on foreign policy or cultural issues have tended to skew more favorably to the GOP.

Regarding cultural issues, one could argue that times have changed — that postmodern Americans are no longer interested in preserving traditional American values — that we’re all too sophisticated or too civilized to care. I would say two things: First, prove it. Second, while today’s voters may be too sophisticated to fall for cheap “family values” pandering, I do not for one minute believe the vast majority of Americans have suddenly turned up their noses at sincere efforts to preserve a just and moral society.

While some are skeptical that running on cultural issues can be a winning formula, the more ridiculous notion might be the belief that running on the economy will work.

Why might this matter? Rick Santorum (or Newt Gingrich, for that matter) seem, perhaps, better-equipped to run a campaign focused on cultural issues or foreign policy (as Michele Bachmann suggests).

Santorum, especially, has a real opportunity to run a sort of populist conservative campaign. If he’s smart and disciplined (unfortunately, a big if) — Santorum could tap into his blue collar, social conservative appeal to advocate an anti-corporate cronyism and an anti-cultural elitism message. He could run a populist general election campaign against both the revolving-door, bailout-receiving “fat cats” who give millions to Obama — and against the big Hollywood cultural elites working to undermine traditional American institutions.

This is not to say it would be easy. Whoever wins the GOP nomination will be subject to relentless attacks from Obama. If Santorum is the nominee, he will be demonized as an evil neanderthal who wants to take away your contraception. The question is, can he effectively combat it?

If a Santorum nomination threatens to reawaken the divisive culture wars, a Romney nomination will be all about class warfare — the haves versus the have nots. Romney, of course, will be cast as a Gordon Gekko-esque corporate raider who doesn’t care about “the very poor.”

Either scenario presents serious challenges for Republicans (this ain’t bean bags!), but given the choice between the two options, Republicans may be better off if the election is about values instead of money (and even if it is about money, they should, as Arthur Brooks advises, make the moral case for free markets).

Regardless, winning probably won’t be as simple as pointing to the unemployment rate — and then measuring the drapes. “It’s the economy stupid!,” worked in 1992 for Bill Clinton, but nobody ever said it could be a bipartisan rallying cry.