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.