There has been a rather lively discussion this week at the Crunchy Con blog about the disconnect between economic and social conservatives, what it means to be a conservative, and what a conservative candidate looks like. I've been thinking about it all, and have come to the glimmerings of a conclusion.
For almost the past three decades a fragile alliance has been holding strong, producing voters for each election who were willing to pull the lever beside the big black "R." Some of these voters were worried mainly about an economic vision; remembering the difficulties of the Carter era and reflecting on the difficulty of maintaining high profit margins in the face of too much government regulation, they worked hard to find and support candidates who shared their concerns and appreciated their drive and passion for financial success and profitability. Worried by the increasingly socialist bent of the Democratic party, tired of being labeled as greedy and selfish for wanting to reap the benefits of their own financial risks, they found their home in the Republican party and their leader in Ronald Reagan.
But at the same time another group was becoming disenchanted with the Democrats, with the politics of victimhood, and above all with the radical strain within the Democratic party that favored abortion on demand, sex education at the kindergarten level, day care as a government entitlement (so all women could work outside the home, of course; there was never any value given to the stay-at-home mom in that era), and with the faint odor of communism that still lingered around the party, a foul yet ghostly stench that made it harder and harder for people who despised the Iron Curtain to feel comfortable voting for the party that seemed more inclined to become communist than to fight communism. Among these voters were Catholics, middle-class former Democrats, Evangelical Christians, and those who were feeling increasingly isolated politically from what the Democratic party had to offer; they, too, found their home in the Republican party and their leader in Ronald Reagan.
It was a perfect storm, this Reagan Coalition. In election cycle after election cycle, the Republicans have sought to resurrect the results it accomplished by appealing to the spirit of Reagan, by marrying social conservatism with economic conservatism, and, if we must be strictly honest, by counting on the Democrats to remain so strident, so pro-abortion, so much the party of Hollywood and debauchery, that the social conservatives would have nowhere else to go.
And we had nowhere else to go. That didn't stop us from failing to show up in sufficient numbers to elect Bob Dole, or to make George H.W. Bush a more than one term president; but we didn't desert the party permanently, either.
And so the economically conservative wing of the party, the wing that has always been in control, has been taking us for granted. In a way, that's understandable. My Catholic forbears probably tended to vote for Democrats, because back before Roe v. Wade the Democrats were the party of the people, the party of the working man and his union, the party that cared more about your persistence than your pedigree; the Republicans were always seen, fairly or not, as the party of the rich. Certainly the Republican party's ties to big business and corporate wealth have been around longer than their ties to the hardscrabble pro-life movement or the emerging anti-gay marriage movement; the economic conservatives would agree that they came first, and that the social conservatives should therefore be prepared to put the economic issues ahead of the social ones in selecting a candidate to be the Republican presidential nominee.
Of course, they've never come right out and said that. Instead, each campaign season the various candidates have donned a "social conservative" mask, removing it in front of strictly economic constituents, but keeping it firmly in place at other times. They've said the right words, and some of them have even delivered on a promise or two once in office, but the reality has been that the social issues do not concern them nearly as much as the economic ones do.
And then we come to this year's campaign. We come to the crossroads.
Because this year the two most economically conservative candidates, Romney and Giuliani, are the two weakest social conservatives. Giuliani really can't be called a conservative at all from the social perspective; his support for abortion alone rules him out, and he's pretty iffy on gay marriage, too. I suspect that the party not only knew this, but hoped that Giuliani's candidacy would have the effect of making Romney look like a true social conservative by comparison, a game they have played before.
Unfortunately for them, several other candidates ended up showing just how weak on the social issues Romney really is, given his day-before-yesterday "conversion" on abortion and his utterly
ineffectual response to his home-state's gay marriage crisis, which occurred under his leadership. Mike Huckabee, Ron Paul, Fred Thompson, and even John McCain (despite his troubling support for ESCR) are all decidedly to the right of Romney on social issues, and any one of them could arguably be a better candidate for president on the issues of abortion, gay marriage, the decline of the family, and the like.
So the social conservatives, still operating under the illusion that the Republican establishment would accept any one of these men as their presidential candidate, have voted for each of them in turn; and the Republican establishment has come back with all the icy fury of a manager disappointed with his sales team, to lecture us all on our duty to vote for their candidate.
They've attacked McCain and Huckabee as "false" conservatives. They've branded Ron Paul a lunatic, and if they've left Fred Thompson alone it's primarily because they don't see him as any kind of a threat. They've issued dire warnings about the direction the party would take if anyone but Romney is the nominee, and have unleashed the full panoply of talk-radio warriors to make sure we get the message. Romney, or nobody. Romney, or they won't show up to vote. Romney, or we're not real conservatives.
And all of that effort has shown two things very clearly. One, that though the Republican establishment used to make fun of the Democrats (and probably still does) for taking their marching orders from the mainstream media, they actually do expect us, the social conservatives, to take our marching orders from their mouthpiece behind the "golden EIB microphone" and their pundits in the Wall Street Journal. And two, that all the lip service paid to social issues over the past couple of decades has been just that--lip service--because more important than ending abortion or prohibiting gay marriage is making a profit on abortion-related industries or from the large pockets of discretionary income most gays have, and spend. No matter what the issue, its relation to profit will be its most important aspect, which is why we won't be talking about energy conservation, or cultivating, as a nation, the habit of thrift; the consumer pace will be expected to increase and increase forever, because double-digit annual profit increases are our country's most important priority, and all else must stand or fall by how profitable it is.
So here we are, my fellow social conservatives. At the crossroads.
And the words that echo in our ears are the words of One in Whom even our money says we trust: "For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul?"