Political Hay

Social Conservatives as Scapegoats

In this area the recriminations are not only delusional but politically suicidal.

By 11.17.08

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To listen to some Republicans, not to mention, the braying of media outlets such as MSNBC, and even, here and there, a few economic libertarians, you would think that traditional conservatives, the defenders of the unborn and the integrity of marriage as a venerable and ancient institution, were responsible for two wars gone sour, over-spending at a level to embarrass Lyndon Johnson, the largest expansion of entitlement spending since the Great Society, numerous cases of GOP corruption and betrayal of the public trust centering around earmarks and political favors and the miserable results in the presidential and congressional elections just passed.

Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, not this writer's first choice for the job of vice president, has now become the target for patronizing comments by the chattering classes who can't tell a moose hunt from an Easter egg hunt. For some of these enlightened minds, Governor Palin's loving acceptance of her new baby with special needs and her stand-up support for her teenage daughter seem to count for nothing at best or even a big negative. They view her selflessness as trailer park behavior rather than a loving parent's defense of life and love in her family.

"To love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections," said Edmund Burke.

Listening to these outcries, one might believe that the global economic meltdown, the single biggest reason for Senator McCain's defeat, was the result of a worldwide conspiracy of the Right to Life movement, pro-marriage activists, Mormons, Evangelicals, Mass-attending Catholics, oh yes, and the NRA.

This scapegoating of the solid and most loyal of the three wings of the Reaganite coalition is inaccurate and just plain wrong. It is self-defeating in the long run. It is rank blame-shifting and a libel of a GOP constituency which has always supported low taxes, a strong defense and a constrained judiciary. All it asked for was fair consideration of its concerns with family and the culture of life.

If economic or business conservatives thinks they can win Midwestern, western, Southern and border states without Evangelicals, Southern Baptists, culturally conservative Catholics and advocates for the nuclear family as the first of all social institutions, they are kidding themselves. President Gerald Ford's primary victory over Ronald Reagan in 1976 was the last gasp of that worldview. You do not find many political volunteers, or voters, at the Union League or Bogey Clubs.

Political success is about addition, not subtraction. Clearly, the GOP cannot win with only the social conservatives. That is why coalitions are a necessary part of political life. This is equally true for economic and national defense conservatives. Indeed, one could argue that the apparent singularity of social conservative support for the GOP ticket this past election was due, at least in part, to the failure of conservative economic or neoconservative foreign policies, many of which were radical departures from the Reaganite model.

This internecine battle has got to stop if there is to be any chance of regrouping for the off-year elections in 2010 and beyond.

One might view the tripartite Reagan coalition as a portfolio approach to political risk management, appealing to diverse constituencies, programs and messages across a wide and varied society. Viewed this way, social conservatives, free-market economic and national security advocates need to cling to each other while remaining open to the concerns of new emerging constituencies such as Hispanics who, by the way, are pro-family and not normally categorized as social liberals.

This is not to diminish substantive disagreements on serious questions of policy. Indeed, conservative, paleo-conservative and simple plain-vanilla conservatives have real differences on preventive war, nation building, civil liberties and the like. Many will dissent from the GOP's pronounced tilt in favor of the humanity of the unborn in public policy. With only two political parties to choose from, such skirmishes are inevitable. Moreover, there are new issues that need to be analyzed and addressed creatively. For instance, entitlement reform may rival tax cutting as a concern for the long haul. Health care is another matter crying for creative solutions in an age of economic uncertainty and personal mobility in the market place.

What do the Girl Scouts say, make new friends and keep the old?

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About the Author

G. Tracy Mehan III served at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the administrations of both Presidents Bush. He is a consultant in Arlington, Virginia, and an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law.