There are two opposing views regarding what Rick Santorum’s campaign tells us about the strength of social conservatives. The debate will continue over whether the glass is half-full or half-empty for social conservatives.
The glass half-full crowd argues that Santorum’s improbable success shows the enduring strength of social conservatives. Jon Ward of the Huffington Post quotes Santorum:“Over and over again we were told, ‘Forget it, you can’t win.’ We were winning. We were winning in a very different way because we were touching hearts, we were raising issues that well, frankly, a lot of people didn’t want to have raised.” CBS News observed: “Santorum rose in the campaign on his conviction — often winning voters who chose strong conservative values and a good moral character over the political attribute of being able to beat President Obama.”
But ultimately Santorum was no more successful than Mike Huckabee. He didn’t expand beyond the “very conservative” base and those evangelical voters for whom social issues remain the top priority. The Wall Street editorial board writes: “Mr. Santorum did sometimes play into the media caricature of social conservatives as members of the cast-the-first-stone coalition. Recall his taking the bait over JFK’s 1960 speech on politics and religion. That preoccupation hurt him among some suburban and moderate voters for whom the economy is the paramount issue. Had the former two-term Senator grabbed a few thousand more of those suburban Republicans in Michigan or Ohio, he might have taken Mr. Romney into June or perhaps all the way to the convention.”
It was in fact Santorum’s penchant for pursuing issues like contraception that were not of concern to most voters and hyping his anti-elitism (calling the president a “snob” for wanting Americans to go to college) that slowed him down. Even within the GOP electorate, there are not enough staunch social conservatives to support a candidate like Santorum.
Now, social conservatives will argue that the message was fine but that Santorum was an imperfect messenger. Well, all messengers are. Frankly, a sunnier and more likable candidate like Huckabee wasn’t able to win the nomination either. A mythical candidate who is angry but not too angry, anti-elite but not too anti-elite and pro-traditional family but not too off-putting to non-social conservatives simply doesn’t exist.
So does this show the fundamental weakness of the social conservative movement and perhaps it irrelevance? That goes too far, I think. In fact, none of the presidential candidates departed from the social conservative line on abortion and gay marriage. That suggests the staying power of those positions and the importance of social conservative turnout for Republican candidates in general elections.
It does, however, suggest that social conservatives do some rethinking about their approach to electoral politics, the substance of their message and the tone of their rhetoric.
As for candidates, social conservatives achieve success (i.e., election of candidates sympathetic to their causes) when candidates with widespread appeal also embrace their views. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a staunch pro-life candidate, won in a swing state with a broad-based appeal to suburban voters. Had he run on gay marriage, abortion and contraception, he would not have won. Likewise, Govs. Bobby Jindal, Susana Martinez and Chris Christie embrace the pro-life position, but they did not make that the focus of their campaigns. In short, encouraging electable conservatives to adopt their views rather than pushing one-note social conservatives may lead to better results and more influence for social conservatives. That’s the model that exceptionally successful special-interest groups (e.g., the NRA) have adopted. If it offends social conservatives to be considered just another “interest group,” they should consider the alternative and whether outside the Deep South and solid conservative enclaves there is a market for candidates like Santorum.
Regarding the substance of their message, social conservatives, I would suggest, will need to evaluate what it means to be “pro-family.” Is this anything more than being anti-gay marriage? And if it is, is there really a public policy element so significant that candidates can propound an agenda and not simply toss about platitudes? Right Turn readers know my view that Americans’ stance on gay marriage is shifting generationally. As more and more states support gay marriage by popular vote and young people consider gay marriage to be perfectly acceptable, social conservatives will find it difficult to take an anti-democratic stance that is at war with the views of an emerging majority. Sooner or later, that issue will be “lost” for religious value voters. By contrast, the success of the pro-life movement in pushing for incremental steps (e.g., a ban on partial-birth abortion) and using a variety of appeals (scientific and religious) to change hearts and minds should counsel for a more nuanced approach to issues.
And finally, Santorum showed the necessity for a shift in tone and rhetoric. If social conservatives want to embrace the stereotype of angry, judgmental busybodies, they can talk morning, noon and night about women being bamboozled by feminists into entering the workplace and harming themselves by using contraception. A more mature and effective brand of rhetoric seeks to persuade, not to scold, and seeks to enlighten, not condemn. Like it or not, Americans are increasingly accepting of social and cultural diversity. If social conservatives identify pluralism or tolerance as the problem, they will get nowhere with the vast majority of voters.
Social conservatives backed a candidate who lost. That should provoke some self-evaluation about how to influence their party and affect public policy. And it should remind conservatives that winning elections is about persuading people who don’t automatically agree with your views.