Social conservatives, whose influence reached an apex during the Bush administration when the president campaigned on a constitutional amendment codifying traditional marriage and euthanasia brought the Capitol to a halt in the Teri Schiavo episode, are now on the defensive.
Federal courts continue to march against their priorities, most recently with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit throwing out the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays.
Though Republicans are poised for potentially historic gains at the polls on Nov. 2, all the energy of the party’s activist base is focused on spending and small government issues.
And among the ranks of Republican elites in Washington, D.C., acceptance of gay rights is on the march, with growing numbers of prominent Republicans urging the party to tack left on the issue.
Faced with these obstacles, leaders of the social conservative movement are crafting a vision fit for the times with a heavy emphasis on economic issues and scaled back ambitions that might have been shocking in their modesty only a few years ago.
“I’m generally thought of as a social conservative,” said Gary Bauer, president of American Values, “but I would actually say that to begin with, the Republicans ought to do whatever they can to ensure that the Bush tax cuts are extended across the income brackets, because in my view one of the most pro-family things we can do right now is get this economy moving again.”
“The American people are demanding we address the problems with our economy,” said former Virginia governor and Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Gilmore, now heading the Free Congress Foundation launched by the late Paul Weyrich.
Gilmore is pushing a three-point, “Freeze, Grow, Fix” economic plan that makes no mention of social issues, a surprising development given that the group’s founder, Weyrich, once famously urged conservatives, having lost the culture war to a “decadent” “cultural Marxism,” to isolate themselves in “godly, righteous and sober” enclaves.
The plan urges Congress to “freeze” spending, cut taxes and teach entrepreneurship in public schools, to “grow” the economy, and to “fix” the coming entitlement crisis by “means testing” Medicare and slowing the growth of Social Security benefits.
Colleen Holmes, executive director of the Eagle Forum, sought to bridge social issues and the economy.
“In our perspective, if you’re concerned about spending, you really need to be concerned about the so-called social issues, too, because most of the federal spending is related to social programs, whether it’s federal funding for abortions, which a majority of Americans oppose, or, our founder Phyllis Schlafly has done a lot of writing on the costs society incurs when you don’t encourage marriage,” Holmes said.
“Right now one of the biggest family issues that families are facing is joblessness and struggling in this economy,” Holmes said.
While focusing on spending, spending and more spending, one key plank of their agenda missing is a constitutional amendment to put traditional marriage out of the reach of liberal judges.
In 2004, the issue was a rallying cry for the conservative base. President Bush endorsed the amendment and many analysts said it contributed significantly to Republican victories at the poll.
Now, with President Obama in office, pushing such an amendment is perhaps unrealistic. But it’s striking to see someone like Tony Perkins, the head of the Family Research Council, fail to mention it when The Daily Caller asked what his legislative priorities are for the next Congress.
“There’s really nothing that social conservatives right now are looking for to be done legislatively,” Perkins said, “Most of it is defensive. ‘Hey we don’t want to change this,’ ‘don’t go back on that.’ Eliminate this taxpayer funding for abortion, that wasn’t there before. The Defense of Marriage Act is in place.”
The issue of abortion provides the best avenue for social conservatives to unite with the Tea Party energy of 2010, as conservatives charge the president’s health care law created new taxpayer subsidies for abortion, uniting spending with morals.
That has become a focal point issue for social conservatives, who gave House Minority Leader Rep. John Boehner an award for his leadership fighting Democrats over the issue earlier this year.