In the increasingly Tea Party-dominated world of Republican politics, feelings of alienation and irrelevance have begun to set in among the social conservative movement.
The constituency once so potent has been marginalized by a new breed of libertarian-leaning activists who see issues of debt, spending, and limited government as the new vehicle for reforming the GOP and reacquiring power in 2010 and 2012.
The current woeful state arguably can be traced back to 2008, when social conservatives grudgingly went along with the presidential candidacy of John McCain, who had once branded figureheads of their movement as “agents of intolerance,” and who received their votes not as an expression of warm affection for his political ideology but rather from the judgment that he was the lesser of two evils.
It was a far cry from the glorious days of the 2004 presidential campaign when social conservatives had seemingly reached the zenith of their power. Through the strength of their organizational capacity in swing states like Ohio, and the sheer mass of their numbers, they enthusiastically championed and worked for the reelection of George W. Bush. A man they had come to see as an unapologetic ally, and someone unafraid to use morality as a means of distinction between himself and political opponents.
But in today’s political climate, it’s not just the Tea Party that is devoting the majority of their attention and concern towards economic and fiscal issues; the broader American public is trending in that direction too.
According to a May Pew Research Center poll asking Americans what topics most come up during discussions with friends and family, the top three issues were the economy (68 percent), the job situation (65 percent), and health care (56 percent). Issues like abortion, gay marriage, gun control, and flag burning didn’t even catch a whiff of interest.
With the next couple of election cycles shaping up to be centered around issues more pertinent to the concerns of the Tea Party, social conservatives have begun serving notice to the GOP establishment and prospective presidential candidates that regardless of how receptive the electorate is to their cause, 2012 will not be a repeat of 2008, when they were called upon to support a candidate who largely deemphasized the more polarizing issues of the socially conservative agenda.
A recent spat with Indiana governor and potential 2012 GOP contender Mitch Daniels encapsulated the divide over how much lip service should be paid to social issues in the years ahead.
In a lengthy June profile by the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard, Daniels pontificated to reporter Andrew Ferguson that until the economic issues of the day are resolved, the next president “would have to call a truce on the so-called social issues.”
The remarks prompted a firestorm, leading to strident rebukes from a number of socially conservative luminaries.
Former Arkansas governor and current popular Fox News host Mike Huckabee sent out a scathing fundraising email to HUCKPAC supporters, accusing Daniels of using the issues of marriage and abortion as “bargaining chips.” Huckabee further blasted Daniels, “I’m very disappointed that he would think that pro-life and pro-family activists would just lie down,”
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, an unabashedly pro-life organization, fervently ripped into Daniels as well:
“Not only is he noncommittal about his role as a pro-life leader, but the governor wouldn’t even agree to a modest step like banning taxpayer-funded promotion of abortion overseas—which [former] President Bush did on his first day in office with 65% of the country’s support…Thank goodness the Founding Fathers were not timid in their leadership; they understood that “truce” was nothing more than surrender.”
Underneath the bluster of such attacks is a pair of underlying messages. First, that if any Republican presidential hopeful attempts to skirt around the social issues, they will be susceptible to attacks from the right by candidates like Huckabee who gleefully use the persona of culture warrior as a source of political ammunition. Second, a certain sense of nostalgia remains for a Bush-like candidate who staunchly and openly advocates the social conservative platform.
The influence of social conservatives may be temporarily waning. But waning influence should not be mistaken for little or no influence. Mike Huckabee’s upset victory in Iowa back in 2008 demonstrated they still remain capable of organizing and turning out for candidates who speak their language. Further, they still posses a pro-life veto power that nearly automatically eliminates pro-choice candidates from either serving at the top or bottom of a presidential ticket. See Rudy Giuliani, Tom Ridge and Joe Lieberman.
Social conservatives time in the limelight will return at some point, but for now all eyes remain on the Tea Party.
Aaron Guerrero is a 2009 UC Davis graduate, who majored in political science and minored in history. He formerly interned for Rep. Dan Lungren and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and is a freelance writer