The Return Of The Culture Wars

Are culture war issues about to make a comeback in the 2012 campaign?

For more than a year now, the conventional wisdom has been that the important issues in the 2012 election would all center around the economy, whether it was jobs, economic growth, health insurance reform, or taxes. Given the state of the economy over the past several years, it was hardly a risky bet. With unemployment in the 9% range, economic growth slow, and the dangers of another downturn seemingly everywhere it seemed logical that the GOP would be turning to candidates who would emphasize economic issues rather than the social issues that the party base often gets passionate about. Last year at this time, there was a boomlet of support for Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, who called for a truce on social issues so that the nation could focus on the economy. More importantly, Mitt Romney was and is widely seen as basing his entire candidacy on a criticism of the Obama Administration’s economic record and the argument that, with his business experience, Governor Romney could do a better job at fixing the economy.

Judging by the headlines of the past couple weeks, though, you’ve got to wonder if that’s actually going to be the case. Although things still remain precarious, the economy does seem to be improving at a pace it was not meeting in 2011 and the President’s approval numbers and head-to-head numbers against Republican candidates are improving as well. Meanwhile, we’ve seen the headlines dominated by a fight between a breast cancer charity and its supporters over aid to Planned Parenthood, a new regulation requiring religious institutions to provide insurance to their employees that covers birth control, a new Court decision on same-sex marriage, and the seeming second act of Rick Santorum in the Presidential race. It’s enough to make one wonder if the culture wars are back after all and what impact they might have on the 2012 race going forward:

As we’ve said before, the economy will likely remain the top story in November’s general election. But events overseas, as well as inside this country, can change the issue matrix in the blink of an eye. And the question has to be asked: If the debate between now and the spring is about social issues — and not the economy — how much does that hurt Romney? And help Santorum?

Gut instinct would seem to suggest that it helps Santorum and hurts Romney. After all, Santorum is the candidate most identified with social conservatism remaining in the race and it’s likely the main reason that he was able to find success not only last night, but also in Iowa at the beginning of January. As this race heads into Southern states where evangelicals are more numerous, Santorum is likely to be advantaged to a degree that none of the other other candidates are. It remains to be seen, of course, whether or not Santorum is able to exploit these victories into some kind of momentum going forward. He utterly failed to do that after Iowa, although some will argue that he was hampered somewhat by the fact that the race headed into New Hampshire with Romney identified as the winner of the Iowa Caucuses and it was only a week or more later that we learned that it was in fact Santorum that had won that race. That doesn’t entirely explain Santorum’s failure to light a fire in a State like South Carolina, of course, and the fact remains that he simply doesn’t have the money or the organization to challenge Romney effectively going forward. Nonetheless, it seems rather clear that to the extent social issues become more of an issue in the mind of voters in the GOP Primaries, it will help Santorum to at least some degree.

Of course, things will be very different when the General Election rolls around. If by some set of bizarre circumstances the GOP nominates Romney,  or if the party continues to beat the culture war drums the way candidates like Santorum, Gingrich, and even Romney have in the primaries then the odds are it will hurt the GOP. By all accounts, this is an election that is going to be won and lost in swing states like Virginia, Colorado, New Mexico, and Ohio. It seems unlikely that Republican efforts in any of those states will be helped if the party becomes identified with a hard right position on social issues rather than the economic message that they should be pushing, or if economic issues become less of a concern for voters because the economy is improving. Vehement opposition to same-sex marriage or gay adopting rights may help win over hard core Republicans in states that are going to Republican in November regardless of who the nominee is, but they’re not going to help the GOP one bit in the areas of the country that are actually going to decide this election. So, in the a true display of irony, it may turn out that this entire election may end up proving Mitch Daniels and the others who say that the GOP needs to deemphasize social issues right. And Republicans who have spent the last year or more fanning the culture war flames will have nobody to blame but themselves.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Rob in CT says:

    Of course. Gotta get the base riled up (which, in turn, will help rile up the Dem base). The “culture wars” are terribly convenient for politicians.

  2. Brummagem Joe says:

    The Republicans have got to have something now the economy is going away from them. Get out the old playbook and turn to the Chapters headed

    God….Guns….Gays….(and shsss he comes from Kenya)

  3. legion says:

    OK, it’s maybe only tangentially related, but here’s a thought that just occurred to me regarding the whole Catholic businesses-contraception dustup…

    – As I understand the new policy, churches are specifically exempt from the requirement to offer BC on health plans, but businesses owned/associated with churches (like hospitals, universities, etc) are not & must offer it just like any other business. Yes?

    – And the blowback is that this is being described as forcing Catholic businesses to support a concept counter to their doctrine – that businesses owned by a church should be given the same latitude as the churches themselves, right?

    – So, by that process, any company owned by, say, Christian Scientists shouldn’t have to offer health plans to their employees at all, right?

  4. @legion:

    The argument that the Church, and many Catholics if not most, would make is that institutions like Catholic Charities or a Church-run hospitals are not a “business.” They are non-profit institutions and the Church considers its charitable activities as much a part of its religious mission as anything else it does. So, to that extent, there’s a difference between a Catholic Hospital and say “Joe’s Flower Shop” where Joe happens to be a practicing Catholic.

  5. David M says:

    Even if the economy improves, I have a hard time seeing social issues as a winning proposition in the general election this fall. The GOP has had a hard time deciding on a coherent economic policy beyond opposing Obama’s proposals, so maybe this is just the natural fall back.

  6. MBunge says:

    “The argument that the Church, and many Catholics if not most, would make is”

    I believe the argument they’re actually making is that the sale or provision of contraception is now deemed a sin, not merely the use of such things. That’s the underlying assumption of their position.

    Mike

  7. legion says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    there’s a difference between a Catholic Hospital and say “Joe’s Flower Shop” where Joe happens to be a practicing Catholic.

    Absolutely. It’s also confusing that “The Catholic Church” is an actual concrete entity that could also own Joe’s Flower Shop – would that make Joe’s another exempt charitable organization? How is such a thing defined? Is there an actual set of standards, or is it just whatever the Church owns?

    If these sound like leading questions, they are! The point I’m coming to is: if a religion or religious institution can operate a business “outside” standing laws that conflict with its doctrine, what happens if an Islamic group runs a charitable organization & decides its HR practices now have to abide by Sharia law? How would conservative Evangelicals respond to such a thing? Or am I just going down a rabbit hole?

  8. Ron Beasley says:

    This is a loser for the Republicans. Outside the deep South Social Conservatives are old and dying off. The only group that opposed the decision were White Evangelical Christians and they were opposed because it came from Obama not because of contraception. They were never going to vote for Obama anyway. In 28 states it’s already mandated by the state.

  9. Hey Norm says:

    It was always a culture war. There was no Tea Party before Obama. It was always about “the others” cloaked in economic jibberish. Cut our taxes. Except they were already at historic lows…and still Obama did cut them. No matter…it was all really about “the others”.
    Now the country is beginning to notice what many of us have seen for a while…the economy is getting better. And thus their culture war is laid bare. So now it’s the party of well-off white suburbanites who “want their country back” vs. “the others”.
    The rhetoric of all the Clown Car Candidates reflect this. They promise a return to 1958…when “the others” were segregated and closeted and stopped at the border and the federal government spent lots of money on things besides tax breaks for the rich. But the Clown Car has no way of backing up that promise. African Americans aren’t going back to the other side of the tracks and the gays are staying out and millions of Mexicans aren’t going back home and the top tax rate isn’t going to 91%.
    But Romney isn’t telling them that.

  10. PD Shaw says:

    @legion:As someone who is insured through a hospital, via my spouse, I think you need to back-up a little and think about how insurance works as a part of employee compensation, particularly if you work for a healthcare provider. Our policy is very nice in terms of coverage for things likely to occur in this area, and I could only assume part of the logic here is that attracting and paying employees through healthcare is cheaper than paying higher wages for many healthcare providers.

    There is doctor who comments here and I believe he’s indicated that where he works they’ve gone the other direction, they don’t try to compete with other medical providers with benefits, they pay higher wages. If so, I wouldn’t be surprised if they don’t have birth control coverage because birthcontrol is not an insurable risk, its just a way of paying for someone else to pay for a predicted expense.

    But back to the Christian Science/ Muslim medical provider. They need workers and they need to comopensate them. If they want to spend an extra ten percent in compoensation to make sure that the women are always wearing a hijab, maybe they’ll get enough workers. I doubt it. Can you get enough quality workers at a hospital without paying for their birth control, the record is definitely.

  11. Septimius says:

    @legion: In order to be a non-profit, the organization must serve a government approved purpose, such as education, healthcare, or social services. If Joe’s Flower Shop was operated as a for-profit organization, it could not be a tax exempt charity, even if it was owned by the Catholic Church. It is my understanding that when a church rents out its hall, for example, it must pay tax on that income because that income is considered unrelated to the core mission of the organization.

    I’m not really sure about your Sharia law analogy. The Catholic Church is not trying to force anyone to abide by church doctrine on contraception. The Church doesn’t fire female employees if it is discovered that they use contraception. It simply doesn’t want to be a part of the process. Just because my company doesn’t give me a company car doesn’t mean it is “forcing” me to walk to work.

  12. steve says:

    @PD- We pay lower salaries, but more in benefits and pension.

    Steve

  13. Kylopod says:

    It was always a culture war. There was no Tea Party before Obama. It was always about “the others” cloaked in economic jibberish.

    I agree. I think the whole TP movement was essentially the culture war dressed up as economic populism.

  14. John D'Geek says:

    One must remember that, in the west, the very concepts of Schools (Universities to be precise), Hospitals, and Charities all started off as Catholic Institutions. So, from a Catholic POV, they’ve been doing this sort of stuff as part of their religious duties for centuries, if not millennia. Now all the sudden a bunch of secularists have decided that schools and charities are exclusively secular.

    The assumption of exclusivity what the big flap is all about.

    They might be annoyed that the Feds are declaring that all secular institutions must cover birth control, but that wouldn’t be enough for this reaction. Individual Catholics undoubtedly disagree with the churches official position, but having an outsider — especially a government — tell the Catholic Church how to perform it’s religious duties just won’t fly.

    Do a quick Google on the Catholic Church in China and you’ll see just how deeply rooted that resistance is.

  15. Ron Beasley says:

    @Kylopod: Yes, and this is becoming a problem for the Republicans. Zandar:

    The GOP bet everything on the “Tea Party as the new majority” after 2010, and that assumption is rapidly turning into one of the biggest political meltdowns in a long time. Awesome. The further to the right they go, the more they lose from everyone else. Even their primaries are self destructing.

    If you were a woman, a minority, a non-Christian, LGBT, a government or union employee or you make less than six figures a year, why would you care to vote in the GOP primaries since the party already classifies you as the enemy? I mean what what, literally leaves the 27% if that much?

  16. Hey Norm says:

    According to the CDC 98% of catholics practice forms of contraception forbidden by the church at some point…so when you get down to it isn’t this really just a pile of horse $hit…just the next shiny object for Obama haters to focus on?
    Like I said the other day…the church should worry a lot more about the little boys they rape(d) and a lot less about some of their employees getting the pill. Unless maybe they are simply concerned about limiting their supply of little altar boys.

  17. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    The argument that the Church, and many Catholics if not most, would make is that institutions like Catholic Charities or a Church-run hospitals are not a “business.”

    You jest. And as a sidebar am I incorrect in believing many states have laws imposing exactly this requiremen to dispense contraceptives etc. on on catholic hospitals etc. I seem to remember a big controversy about this in NY state when Pataki was governor and the legislation passed…whether it was over his veto I can’t remember. If this is the case isn’t this an entirely sham controversy.

  18. David M says:

    @Brummagem Joe: I’d like to know if they are complying with that law or not. If they are complying with it, then this seems like more of a preference than anything else. I have a hard time understanding how they could comply with this due to state regulations, but not be able to comply with it federally. Even if they don’t like following this regulation, once they start following it one place, why can’t they follow it everywhere? Either it’s important enough so they never follow it everywhere or it isn’t.

  19. Franklin says:

    There’s a good reason that the Obama Administration is taking a second look at the Catholic health insurance issue. But other than that, culture war issues are quickly becoming losers for the Republicans, my opinion is that they should try to stick to the economy.

  20. Gold Star for Robot Boy says:

    @Kylopod:

    I think the whole TP movement was essentially the culture war dressed up as economic populism.

    TPers are very fond of screaming about spending/the deficit… when the money isn’t going to them.

  21. PD Shaw says:

    @steve: sigh, I thought it was the opposite, which is why it stuck in mind.

  22. Brummagem Joe says:

    @David M:

    My memory isn’t entirely faulty apparently

    David Taintor February 8, 2012, 2:25 PM The White House went after Mitt Romney on Wednesday, saying the former Massachusetts governor is an “odd messenger” to criticize the president on a rule that would require insurance plans to cover contraceptives. The Obama Administration’s policy, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said, is “virtually identical” to a policy in Massachusetts when Romney was governor.

    “… the services that this rule would provide for women around the country are the same that are provided in Massachusetts and were provided when (Romney) was governor,” Carney said. “Including contraception.”

  23. legion says:

    @Septimius:
    That makes sense, but man – untangling some of the things set up as businesses vs. non-profits is going to be a nightmare. On a different note, however,

    The Catholic Church is not trying to force anyone to abide by church doctrine on contraception. The Church doesn’t fire female employees if it is discovered that they use contraception.

    Actually, it does. I mean, that’s not contraception specifically, but it raises a broader issue – this woman did sign a contract that said she would “comply with and act consistently in accordance with the stated philosophy and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and the policies and directives of the School and the Archdiocese.” but making their employees live by church doctrine to keep their jobs is _exactly_ what this is about & what the church wants to be allowed to do.

  24. PD Shaw says:

    I think some of this discussion is tailing into another, broader issue, which is the preferential treatment of non-for-profits. My state has challenged the not-for-profit status of a few hospitals based upon what they see as aggressive collection activities. Scan the salary and compensation records of many of the major charities and you might find retirees with seven figure incomes. And megachurches in small towns are running coffee shops, whether they are doing so as not-for-profits or for-profits, I don’t know. I don’t know if the issue would be any different if the Sierra Club operated not-for-profit coffee shops, in which all of the money was spent on the employees and raising environmental conscientiousness.

  25. Modulo Myself says:

    Social conservatives are becoming pariahs. They would have been happy to make gays and sex-positive women absolute pariahs, of course, but since they lost and the decent and good guys won, what really bugs them is why an organization genuinely upset about birth control or a swath of people who find two people of the same sex in love disturbing isn’t taken seriously enough to not find a priori ridiculous.

    So we’re talking terms of surrender here. The right wants some accommodations made to ensure that dubious views are eternally respected, regardless of how little reach into reality they might have. But since this is not possible, since someone who thinks that contraception is some sort of soul-killing device is automatically not listened to in reality, then there is nothing but overwhelming bitterness, which explains Rick Santorum.

  26. Brummagem Joe says:

    Give me a break….non profit is largely a fiction in the provision of medical care….come to think of it it’s largely a fiction in a lot of other areas too.

  27. Hey Norm says:

    From TPM…

    Kellie Ferguson, executive director of Republican Majority for choice, told me Wednesday. “You could see the same backlash on attacks on contraception.”
    Ferguson calls the Republican rhetoric on contraception “crossing the line” — taking the discussion away from choice issues (where Republicans can find some broader, if still national minority constituency) and into the realm of the fringy extreme.
    “For the last number of years, we in the pro-choice community in general — and we specifically as Republicans — have been saying as this pandering to a sort of social conservative faction of voters continues, you’re going to see the line pushed further and further and further,” she said. “And we’re now crossing the line from discussion of when we should regulate abortion to when we should now regulate legal doctor-prescribed medications like birth control, which is woven in the fabric of society as an acceptable medication.”
    She pointed to widely-reported polling showing that a majority of Americans — and a majority of Catholics — support the White House policy and urged her party to take a step back before it’s too late.

    Like I said…a warm pile of horse $hit to feed the non-thinking base…

  28. legion says:

    @PD Shaw: I agree with the cost-benefit calculus; but good balance points in that discussion aren’t the issue. The recent ruling, as I understand it, says that a company _has_ to provide the BC benefit, if it provides healthcare at all. While specific levels of coverage, etc are still negotiable, covering contraceptives at no cost is non-negotiable. While churches & their direct employees are exempt from this ruling (clerics & people directly working for/at a church do have to abide by church standards), employees of secular entities that just happen to be owned by the church are covered by this reg.

    Now if, as you note, the organization chooses not to offer a health plan at all, then there’s no issue (at least, that’s what I understand). But if they’re not a quote-unquote “church”, they have to abide by this reg. And if they win the right to do otherwise because it conflicts with their doctrine, how will other religious-owned & run entities use that same exemption?

  29. Tillman says:

    Last year at this time, there was a boomlet of support for Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, who called for a truce on social issues so that the nation could focus on the economy.

    He then signed pro-life legislation into law within the last six months. He called for a truce; he certainly didn’t get one, or really stand up for it.

  30. Septimius says:

    @legion: I stand corrected.

  31. Septimius says:

    @Brummagem Joe:

    The White House went after Mitt Romney on Wednesday, saying the former Massachusetts governor is an “odd messenger” to criticize the president on a rule that would require insurance plans to cover contraceptives. The Obama Administration’s policy, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said, is “virtually identical” to a policy in Massachusetts when Romney was governor.

    “… the services that this rule would provide for women around the country are the same that are provided in Massachusetts and were provided when (Romney) was governor,” Carney said. “Including contraception.”

    Thank you for providing the White House talking points. A couple of questions. Does the Massachusetts law have an exemption for religious institutions? Did Romney sign the bill into law as Governor or have anything to do with its passage?

  32. MBunge says:

    @Septimius: “Did Romney sign the bill into law as Governor or have anything to do with its passage?”

    Since Romney was pro-choice at the time, I imagine he would have supported it if needed.

    Mike

  33. The argument that the Church, and many Catholics if not most, would make is that institutions like Catholic Charities or a Church-run hospitals are not a “business.”

    How is this at all compatible with the argument that government involvement in healthcare is bad because it’s interfering with the market place. Or is this like the economic version of trinity, where hospitals are both businesses and not-businesses and if it doesn’t make any sense, that’s because it’s a miracle.

  34. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Septimius:

    Thank you for providing the White House talking points.

    This is beside the point. Is it accurate not that accuracy is normally a major concern of yours.

  35. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Septimius:

    Like I said…a warm pile of horse $hit to feed the non-thinking base…

    There you go Septimius…supper

  36. Ron Beasley says:

    The contraception flap is not about contraception but about Obama, Obamacare and fodder for the mythical war on religion. My state mandated it several years ago and I don’t remember any serious outrage. Most of the healthcare in this area is controlled by a Catholic nonprofit that is also a big insurance provider. You can bet their insurance policies include birth control because they wouldn’t be competitive with out it even with Catholics. I’m not sure how much influence the Church has over the organization, I think those kind of decisions are made by executives with 6 and 7 figure salaries. My wife had a tubal litigation in a Catholic hospital over 30 years ago yet sterilization is one of the things they are complaining about.

  37. PD Shaw says:

    @legion: “And if they win the right to do otherwise because it conflicts with their doctrine, how will other religious-owned & run entities use that same exemption?”

    If they win, and I tend to think they will, of course any religiously owned organization will use that exemption, but I think that exemption is called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and Christians, Jews, Muslims and even Scientologists have been winning exemptions from government regulation under this and other similar laws. And while I’m sure there are some people that are outraged that prisons provide special accommodations for Muslims, the various religious hierarchies know that they benefit a lot from these exemptions as well.

  38. anjin-san says:

    mythical war on religion

    Fox was pounding hard on this subject today. The war, not the myth.

  39. legion says:

    @PD Shaw: Yes, but there’s a big difference, legally speaking (I believe; I’m sure the legal folks here will correct me otherwise), between getting exemptions for individuals (e.g., accommodations for Muslim prisoners) and exempting corporate entities from complying with regulations that affect all of their employees.

    As you say, the religious types that actually use these exemptions know they work both ways, but the yahoos that make laws, from the federal level on down, do not. They’re happy to allow loopholes for their own preferred religion, but as soon as someone else wants the same “basic right” they claim for themselves, it becomes an “affront to our society”. Boehner is making noises right now about how “this will not stand!” and threatening to take “legislative action” if Obama doesn’t back down, while several states are debating “anti-Sharia” laws that step right in this same pile of poop. Obama’s decision on this isn’t _creating_ a problem, it’s forcing people to start thinking about a problem that’s already here…

  40. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    So your state mandates dispensing contraceptives and the whole thing shows signs of being a sham controversy? What a surprise.

  41. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @Brummagem Joe: I am also fairly certain (not 100%) that colleges and universities with religious ties are required to provide contraception to their students through the school’s health services. But I don’t recall that being a hill to die on.

  42. PD Shaw says:

    Most hospitals and other health-care providers self-insure, so they are exempt from state insurance regulations. I would not assume that a Catholic hospital is providing insurance coverage for contraception just because a state law requires it to.

  43. Brummagem Joe says:

    @PD Shaw:

    Most hospitals and other health-care providers self-insure, so they are exempt from state insurance regulations.

    ?????

  44. Ron Beasley says:

    @PD Shaw: Simply not true in most states.

  45. PD Shaw says:

    @Brummagem Joe: I’m not sure what you are asking. More than half of all employers self-insure, the larger they are the more likely they self insure. Self-insured plans are exempt from state mandates and are instead regulated by ERISA. My insurance through a non-religiously affiliated hospital is a self-insurance plan.

  46. PD Shaw says:

    @Ron Beasley: What’s not true?

  47. Ron Beasley says:

    @PD Shaw:

    Most hospitals and other health-care providers self-insure, so they are exempt from state insurance regulations.

  48. PD Shaw says:

    @Ron Beasley: Not very specific are you? Here is a primer on self-insurance:

    Bottom line: The plans save employers money, allow them to sidestep state insurance regulation, and generally stick it to traditional health insurers.

    . . .

    According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 55 percent of covered workers were in self-insured plans last year, up from just 44 percent eight years earlier (see exhibit 10.1 in that PDF link)

  49. Brummagem Joe says:

    @PD Shaw:

    I don’t dispute that around half of companies self insure. Mine used to do. However, that doesn’t necessarily confirm that

    Most hospitals and other health-care providers self-insure, so they are exempt from state insurance regulations.

    But most (90%+?)….I suspect as Ron suggests it varies from state to state.

  50. Hey Norm says:

    Here is the same rule that republicans are whining about which was introduced in’01 by the same republicans doing the whining.
    http://www.govtrack.us/congress/billtext.xpd?bill=s107-104
    Like I said…it’s all just a horse $hit distraction. A desperate act by a desperate party with zero ideas of how to be relevant in the modern world.

  51. de stijl says:

    The unstated problem with taking a hard “with us or against us”stance in the Culture Wars is that in declaring a side, you are implicitly demonizing those that fall on the other side of the issue. People who feel like that have been demonized are not going to vote for you – this election, the next, always.

  52. rodney dill says:

    About to?

  53. Brummagem Joe says:

    Twenty-eight states are already living with the policy, including Mitt Romney’s home state of Massachusetts and Newt Gingrich’s home state of Georgia, which, unlike the federal mandate, doesn’t exempt churches from providing contraceptive coverage to employees. These state laws require insurers that cover prescription drugs to cover any contraceptive that has been approved by the FDA as well.

    Obviously the Republicans think there are votes in this and there may well be with their more fundamentalist constituency but with the wider public? I doubt it since this is really a debate about access to birth control however much Republicans and the catholic church claim it’s about liberty. No one is being compelled to take these contraceptives if it offends their conscience. Republicans may think impeding access to birth control is a wedge issue that that works to their benefit but it’s potentially a considerable self inflicted wound. I even see some Republicans getting a bit nervous about the political implications of a holy war about this issue.