April 1, 2013

Given the prominence of libertarian-minded Republicans like Paul Ryan and Rand Paul, it’s easy to think that the GOP has moved away from social issues as a major concern. But that’s far from true. Social conservatives remain a large and powerful part of the Republican coalition. They provide donors and volunteers, and they are the driving push behind the GOP’s nationwide effort to pass state-level abortion restrictions like the recent one in North Dakota. The leadership of the Republican Party is aligned with social conservatives on almost every issue, including abortion and same-sex marriage.

It’s this fact that has placed social conservatives on the bad side of GOP reformers, who see them — and their pull during the Republican primaries—as a key factor in the party’s 2012 loss. As the RNC put it in its reform report, while explaining the need to reach out to younger voters: “We do need to make sure young people do not see the party as totally intolerant of alternative points of view.”

But, as Politico points out in a story this morning, social conservatives have a powerful rejoinder — the American public is clearly dissatisfied with the GOP’s economic priorities, and that’s what drives the party’s unpopularity:

“If we gave our voters an accurate portrayal of our ideas, that we want to cut the rate of growth on Social Security, give tax cuts to billionaires and then the values issues, the values issues would be more popular than the economic agenda of the current Republican Party,” said [Gary] Bauer, citing particularly those Mass-attending Roman Catholics who have fled the Democrats.

Bauer added, “I would caution the donor wing of the Republican Party that is driving a lot of this: If they think social conservatives are the only thing preventing Republicans from winning, they’ll learn that their economic agenda will go down the tubes along with the Republican Party’s prospects.”

I’m not sure that the party’s social conservatism is more popular than its economic agenda, but on the main, I think this is an accurate critique. At this point, there’s a wealth of information showing broad opposition to the Republican Party’s economic agenda. Americans oppose new tax cuts on the wealthy, as well as large spending cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and other spending programs. In December, for example, on the eve of the fiscal cliff, a whopping 57 percent favored expiration of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. And just last month, a Bloomberg poll found the Republican Party with an approval rating of 35 percent — twenty points below President Obama’s at the time.

Republicans wouldn’t describe it in these terms, but theirs is an agenda that seeks to maximize economic benefits for the rich. It’s why the Paul Ryan fiscal blueprint cuts billions from social programs while slashing tax rates on the wealthy. And it’s why the party has so little to offer working families, aside from rhetoric.

In other words, Republicans should heed Gary Bauer and other social conservatives. Until the party develops an economic agenda that speaks to all Americans, and not just the rich, there’s not much it can do to find wide appeal.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect, where he writes a blog.