Texas Gov. Rick Perry released an ad decrying that gays can serve in the military but kids can’t pray in schools. It was a ham-handed play for the religious right vote, which drew a mix of condemnation, guffaws and eye-rolling.
“As for [Gov. Rick]Perry’s invocation of gays in the military: that is a prudential judgment having to do with military readiness. And many of our top military officers support allowing gays to serve in the military. To contrast gays serving in the military with kids not openly celebrating Christmas is a very unfortunate road to travel down. If Governor Perry, a self-proclaimed Christian, is really interested in channeling the cares and concerns of Jesus, he might consider saying a word about poverty and injustice, which seemed to have concerned Jesus even more than gays in the military. Sometimes the worst advertisements for Christianity are its adherents.”
That’s quite a slap, but it’s not unlike the reaction of many who nevertheless consider themselves social conservative. The reaction to the ad suggests that such overt plays for the sympathy of conservative Christian voters have lost much of their bite.
That is not to say that deviations from the party pro-life stance don’t matter. Herman Cain badly flubbed up in his inconsistent (comically so) remarks on abortion, riling social conservatives who correctly surmised that he had no real understanding of the issue. Newt Gingrich’s flip flop on stem cell research has gotten some attention. But these are in large part fights about a candidate’s consistency and honesty, rather than the underlying issue.
In fact, gay marriage and abortion have rarely been mentioned in the debates, although many candidates have attended Iowa forums run by religious conservatives. Several factors have, I think, lowered the temperature on these issues in the 2012 campaign.
For starters, the economy has dominated the election to an extent rarely seen in a presidential primary, pushing aside both foreign policy and social issues. Rick Santorum has been virtually the only candidate skilled enough to weave social issues into economic discussions. In his response on the “humble beginnings question” he was able to provide some biography, some stats on single parenthood and a plea for policies that promote marriage. But few if any of the other candidates can adeptly move from the economy to divorce rates.
Second, each of the six candidates competing in Iowa are pro-life. With the exception of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), who wants to get the state out of the business of marriage, all oppose gay marriage and support the Defense of Marriage Act. There simply isn’t that much to fight about when it comes to these issues. Candidates trying to find a foothold in the race aren’t going to spend much time talking about areas on which they largely agree.
Third, it may be that the lesson of 2009 has hit home. In that year, Chris Christie in New Jersey and Bob McDonnell in Virginia won gubernatorial races in states with large numbers of independents and Democrats. Both are pro-life, and McDonnell’s record as a stalwart social conservative was well known. They didn’t change their views to win over moderate voters, but neither did they spend much time talking about these issues. The Republican Party in the Tea Party-era has found unity in economic issues and support from independent voters in keeping the agenda directed at bread and butter economic issues. Prioritizing economic issues, while assuring social conservatives that the candidate is with them on their issues, is a formula that works.
This is not a matter of a “social truce,” as some have used this term. None of the GOP contenders in the Iowa caucuses is offering an olive branch to pro-choice, pro-gay marriage advocates. This isn’t capitulation or even compromise. The candidates are sticking to their positions; they just aren’t making it a point of contention. And until Perry’s ad, they hadn’t been using confrontational rhetoric.
This may be a sign of a mature party that has essentially settled the abortion issue within it own ranks. (I have argued that the party is split generationally on gay rights and this issue will actually fade over time.) Moreover, the tone of the debate has perhaps softened since Sarah Palin talked about her son Trig. Now, candidates gain points for quiet revelations about their own life instead of fiery speeches. While Santorum talks about his severely handicapped daughter, Mitt Romney instead of trying to match his opponent line by line with affirmations of his position on social issues is only now speaking about his own experiences. Biography is in; high-pitched rhetoric is out. (He let newspaper reporters tell the story of his efforts to counsel a congregant against having an abortion.)
The improvement and softening in tone is dramatic, and perhaps a sign of confidence that the pro-life message is one that can resonate beyond the base, even (or especially) without hectoring.
Perry’s ad stands out because it was so tonally different from what we have heard and seen in the election thus far. The generally negative reaction to the ad suggests, at the very least, that the discussion is becoming more civil and reflective. That is certainly a development to be welcomed.