Political Hay

The GOP Pile On

Round up the usual suspects -- amid some fresh faces.

By 11.24.08

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Frustrated by their trouncing on Election Day, Republicans are regrouping, rebuilding, and reenergizing to present a unified conservative message in time for the mid-term elections.

Just kidding.

Actually, as we've seen, the party is shooting its wounded. Witness the chorus of Republican pundits blaming the election on that favorite whipping boy of the party elite: social conservatives.

Kathleen Parker does it with abandon in the Washington Post, fingering what she calls the "evangelical, right-wing, oogedy-boogedy branch of the GOP" for the drubbing. P.J. O'Rourke, writing in the Weekly Standard, lists abortion opposition and the Clinton sex scandal as two areas where conservatives have "blown it" since 1980. Not to be outdone, David Frum says the only hope for Republican recovery is becoming "less overtly religious, less negligent with policy, and less polarizing on social issues.".

The blame flaming is ironic. In 2004, evangelicals played a major role in Republican victories. Few complained. But after electoral blood baths in 2006 and 2008, why, it's those Bible-thumping, one-toothed voters who are at fault. Purging time.

Granted, fiscal conservatives are not the only ones piling on. In his new book, Mike Huckabee says the Republican Party's real threat is "libertarianism masked as conservatism." No, the real threat is the spendthrift, big-government, scandal-ridden wing of the party, which apparently has become the party. Shifting the blame to libertarians isn't the answer.

But neither is shifting the blame to social conservatives. And unfortunately, party elites are far more likely to condemn values voters than fiscal libertarians, exposing an undercurrent of disdain that has existed for years. Show up on Election Day and vote for our candidates, they say, but shut up the rest of the year. That attitude has to change.

Social conservatives are not the culprits of the '08 massacre. Any honest observer of electoral trends knows this. Political models forecast a Democrat victory this year for a reason. Since World War II, the party in the White House has changed every eight years (Jimmy Carter's one-term stint and Bush Senior's win in 1988 were two exceptions). Economic woes, the scorched GOP brand, and scandalized pols such as Ted Stevens (he won't be missed) only reinforced the slaughter.

Given the political reality, it's asinine to blame the GOP's turn at the whipping block on religious conservatives. Social issues played a small role in the campaign. Abortion came up in one of three presidential debates, and it was discussed less than five minutes. Rick Warren raised the topic at a forum in August, prompting Obama to make his infamous "above my pay grade" statement, but even at this evangelical event, sanctity of human life was only one of many issues discussed.

Ditto for other social issues. Marriage redefinition was brought up a handful of times. Both candidates viewed the topic as radioactive. McCain did get poetic justice for his coyness -- more voters in California and Florida voted for a marriage amendment than for the maverick.

In contrast, the candidates discussed (ad nauseam) taxation, wealth redistribution, health care, government intervention in markets, and immigration. This election was more about the economy, Iraq war, and Bush presidency than Roe v. Wade and marriage redefinition. If we are going to blame the loss on issues, blame gas prices and an unpopular war, not the pro-life cause.

The truth, however, is that issues played a negligible role. Obama would have won regardless of what McCain said or did, barring some enormous calamity (a suitcase nuke going off in Manhattan comes to mind). Retrospective in-fighting is useless.

Mitt Romney has the right approach to party cohesion: unite the fiscal, social, and foreign policy conservatives. Reagan did it masterfully. He earned the support of Bible-believing Christians, marijuana-legalizing libertarians, union-card-carrying blue-collar workers, small-town families, and even a few liberals who were scared of being the only ones in their state to vote for Mondale.

Republicans need another unifier of that ilk, a leader who knows that venting frustration on a fundamental part of the Republican base is not the way to win elections. Keep your rhetorical powder dry for the real enemy.

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About the Author
David N. Bass is a journalist who writes from the Old North State. Follow him on Twitter.