Social conservative leaders these days have taken to complaining that fellow Republicans are “blaming” them for the 2012 loss and threatening that social conservatives will bolt the party if the GOP “gives up” on traditional marriage.
As for blaming social conservatives, I have yet to hear prominent pundits or pols blame social conservatives per se as the cause of Mitt Romney’s failings, nor have I heard them, for example, demand Republicans drop their pro-life views. What we have seen is a slew of polling data and a number of conservatives announce they don’t support the federal government trying to dictate the terms of marriage.
Social conservatives, it seems, are seeking to transform disagreeable realities (the growing acceptance of gay marriage) into a claim of victimhood. But the woe-is-us routine is as unconvincing as the threat to bolt the GOP.
For one thing, the plea of persecution ignores how badly social conservatives themselves have failed to persuade Americans to ban same sex marriage. They have lost even their own party’s members under the age of 50. The right is not collectively “blaming” them; it is disagreeing with and to a certain extent recognizing that one part of social conservatives’ agenda will likely not be a viable topic for federal policymaking.
The threat to leave the GOP is a bit nonsensical. They will stay home if the GOP . . . does what exactly? Accepts a constitutional ruling that marriage is an issue for the states? (This was the view of solid conservatives such as Gov. Rick Perry for years, and they received overwhelming support from social conservatives.) Social conservatives will leave the GOP if the Supreme Court finds the 14th Amendment protects gay marriage? That’s an odd reaction, especially since many conservative “pro-family” groups no longer demand support for an anti-gay marriage amendment to the Constitution (given the switch in public opinion, it’s a ridiculous political goal). Social conservatives will flee if the Republican National Committee doesn’t banish Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio)?
The incoherence of the threat speaks volumes about the effectiveness of self-appointed social conservative leaders. If you are going to start issuing threats, it is generally a good idea to explain the terms.
And then there is the “leaving the GOP” part of the threat. Irate social conservative leaders generally vow to return to their churches and drop out of the political realm as they did before the rise of the Moral Majority. I don’t think, given the variety of their interests on everything from school choice to abortion to religious liberty (e.g. the Obamacare mandate), that they are going to cede the political square to the religiously intolerant unbelievers whom they have been fighting with for more than a quarter-century. Moreover, as we know from tea-party polling, many rock-ribbed fiscal conservatives are also social conservatives. Will they stop caring about debt, taxes and the rest of the economic agenda because they lost on gay marriage? It seems improbable.
In their ire, social conservatives claim the rest of the party is unappealing. They have a point insofar as they point to the obsession with cutting tax rates to the exclusion of upward mobility, educational choice, health care and other middle-class concerns. But the smarter and more able conservatives already are rejiggering the conservative agenda, as governors have been doing for some time to present a more populist, middle-class-friendly vision. But much of the GOP agenda (concern about the debt, conviction government is doing too many things, dislike of Obamacare) is quite popular. So the cry “You’ll be nothing without us!” rings a little hollow.
This is not, of course, about the GOP plotting to dump social conservatives. The GOP and the entire country will have to adjust to the legal terrain after the gay marriage cases and thereafter to the views of an electorate that, even among evangelicals, is increasingly accepting of gay marriage. Moreover, unless social conservatives want decades of uninterrupted liberal Democratic rule, they certainly want the GOP to win elections.
So how do social conservatives and the rest of the right get along? If the Supreme Court, as many suspect, says the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional but that states may regulate marriage, the fight goes back (or remains back) in the statehouses and courts. There, social conservatives in deep-red states will get plenty of help from their fellow conservatives and support from the citizenry more generally. And in Massachusetts, for example, gay marriage, like gravity, will be part of the world in which they live.
Social conservatives, if they are clever and adept, might join forces with libertarians to get marriage away from government all together, leaving civil unions as the only type of state recognition and relegating to religion and personal definition the term “marriage.” (“Render unto Caesar. . .” has generally struck a chord over the millennia.)
You may have as the new normal on the right the Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) formula: He personally thinks “marriage” is for one man and one women, but it is a matter for the states, so as a federal lawmaker and future potential presidential candidate it is essentially a non-issue.
In truth, all sorts of conservatives are looking at coalition-building that can secure victories at the polls. Pro-immigration, pro-life and state-determined marriage conservatives with an internationalist agenda may construct a winning alliance, for example. Devout libertarians will try to do the same. Social democrats in the mold of European parties may arise to preach economic populism and social conservatism. The large majority of social conservatives — who have an interest in limited government, religious liberty, etc. — will be part of that mix. As pols vie for their votes, they may find themselves taken more seriously on issues about federal public policy (as opposed to feel-good nostrums and appeals to a legal reality that no longer exists).
If the mass of polling is correct, in a decade or so gay marriage, even among Republicans and evangelicals, will become a non-issue in the realm of national politics. If they want to take a breather from politics until then, I suppose social conservatives can opt out; I just don’t believe it will happen. Like it or not, eclectic politics is here to stay and popular candidates like Paul and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) will continue to draw large numbers of social conservative supporters.