Surrendering on “social issues” won’t save the Republican soul.
THE HEAT’S ON, my friends. Gotta change that GOP.
Change it how? You know by now, surely, with all the talk afloat in the land since the last time America voted. Gotta gag, not to mention tie up (and maybe strangle, if no one’s watching too closely) those “social issue” people, the ones who cost Republicans probably the White House and almost certainly the Senate. They just wouldn’t shut up, would they? Had to keep jamming their sermons down our throats: abortion, gay rights, marriage, religion. Religion? Oh, my God! All that stuff that divides instead of uniting people?
Testimony to the above conceits, whose proponents of course perceive them as reality, not mere supposition or opinion, are abundant as the 2012 political postmortems proceed. The anti–social issues trope is fast becoming embedded. Nor am I talking just about the inevitable reproaches from professional strategists accustomed to receiving large fees for their wisdom and insights.
Writers to the New York Times were free, naturally, with the told-you-so’s:
“An an educated person, I find myself alienated by the anti-woman and anti-science sentiments expressed by the GOP.” (Meredith Schultz, Boca Raton, Fla.)
“The tide has turned. The control of a woman’s body remains properly in her hands, and the right of people to love and marry the partner of their choice is affirmed.” (Arthur L. Yeager, Edison, N.J.)
And so on.
Various professed conservatives sang harmony. Typical would be Patricia Cooper-Smith of Carson City, Nev., in a letter to the Wall Street Journal complaining of a GOP platform imbrued in “intolerance toward minorities and women.” Conservatism, Ms. Cooper-Smith declared, “the philosophy of less government and less government intrusion, has no business playing with social issues.”
Some weeks later, an online commenter to the Journal wrote, “One of the primary reasons the GOP fares so badly IMHO is that many of their social policies are at odds with the mainstream average voters.” Such folk as support abortion and tolerate gay marriage? And blame white males for most of the world’s troubles? That could be the inference from censures such as the above. Depend on David Plouffe, who was until recently President Obama’s senior political strategist, to embroider the theme. “Out of the mainstream,” was how he characterized Washington Republicans to CNN. Just “barriers to progress,” poor fellows, contrasted with “Republicans in the country who are seeking compromise, seeking balance.” Light dawns. To get in the “mainstream,” Republicans have to become Obama Democrats. Or something closer to it than now.
TO A POINT, one can see why so much steam builds up in the boilers of the “social issue” critics. The prime culprit in 2012 was Congressman Todd Akin of Missouri, the Republican nominee for a Democratic Senate seat generally regarded as his to lose. He lost it, sure enough, after expressing himself infelicitously on the politically infelicitous topic of what happens when rape victims become pregnant. Akin gave it out that pregnancy rarely happens in cases of “legitimate” rape, and anyway women are blessed with unspecified means of “shutting down” the whole process. And thus fell the curtain on the Akin campaign, though not without leaving the name “Akin” lying around to decorate Democratic speeches, columns, and blog posts dealing with Republican “insensitivity,” “backwardness,” “bigotry,” you name it. This was unfortunate for many reasons, not the least of these reasons being Akin’s much-vouched-for personal character (as contrasted with the spottiness of his gynecological learning). A couple of other Republicans—Senate candidate Richard Mourdock in Indiana and Rep. Joe Walsh in Illinois—spoke less obtusely about rape and abortion, but got bracketed with Akin anyway and lost their races.
Meanwhile, the push for gay marriage—a notion from which Republicans generally recoil—rolls merrily along at the state level. Nine states and the District of Columbia permit it, as of the start of the year. I reluctantly quote a hugely gratified New York Times: “A rapid shift in public opinion is bolstering [the cause] as more people grow used to the idea of same-sex marriage and become acquainted with openly gay people and couples.”
What, then, for Republicans? Push aside the social issues? Won’t happen. Half, perhaps, of the party’s conservative base would take serious umbrage. The issues clustered under this admittedly ambiguous heading—aren’t all issues “social” to one degree or another?—are ethically urgent. Abortion involves the deliberate taking of human life in the weeks or months before time comes for the child to move and breathe independently. That such an issue would not concern any respectable body of public servants is a proposition as impossible to credit as an Obama speech devoid of the first person singular.
Similarly important, and no more fun to deal with, is the issue of matrimony, contemplated today in a manner unknown throughout the whole course of history. A marriage, on any honest showing, is an undertaking, civil or ecclesiastical, between people of the opposite sex and for reasons rooted in How Things Are, not in how we might remake them if we closed our eyes and clicked our heels three times. From marriage in the traditional sense flow the family relationships we take for granted: teaching, conveying (less often now, it sadly appears, than formerly) the realities and duties of life, as revealed by the testimony of the centuries. The family is foundational in the way Americans and all other humans live. What you build atop a wholly new foundation cannot resemble in any important sense what sat atop the old one.
Next question for Republicans: Change your tone of voice? It might help. Karl Rove has suggested as much: “Republicans need not jettison their principles.” (I’d have liked “should not jettison” even better, if you’ll pardon my saying so, Mr. Rove. Anyway…) “But they must avoid appearing judgmental and callous on social issues.” That is what we might call Politics 101 counsel: Don’t hack off potential supporters. I agree—without doubting the resolution of the media and the Obama White House to put a splenetic spin on words spoken by Republicans in support of unborn life or traditional marriage, howsoever quietly, howsoever tactfully.
That leaves us where, then? Contemplating, I think, a reality larger than mere electoral politics. That reality is the insufficiency at minimum, the scandal at maximum, of licensing government to oversee matters properly left to private modes and institutions. The social issues of which we speak, to put the matter another way, have no business in the political arena…well, to paraphrase the captain of the Pinafore, hardly any.
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