Over the past year, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has been a case study in how not to seek the Republican presidential nomination -- if indeed that is his intention.
Despite having a generally conservative governing record, in the run-up to a possible candidacy, Daniels has managed to alienate all parts of the GOP’s so-called “three-legged” stool. He has rattled economic conservatives by floating the possibility of a VAT tax, unnerved national security hawks by talking about defense cuts and seeming indifferent about foreign policy, and angered values voters by calling for a “truce” on social issues while the country confronts the national emergency of our fiscal crisis.
It’s the latter comments that have drawn the most heat, giving his potential rivals an easy opening at conservative events to say that yes, social issues are a priority.
But while Daniels has become a popular target for social conservatives who understandably don’t want to see their issues downplayed, the reality is that Daniels’ crime was to say explicitly what most of the other potential candidates are saying and doing implicitly -- that is, emphasizing the importance of economic and fiscal issues over moral matters.
In a sense, Daniels has become a scapegoat for a gripe that social conservatives have had for decades -- that Republicans take them for granted. Politicians count on them to get elected, but then spend most of their time pursuing other issues once in office.
A few days into the Reagan presidency, Washington Post correspondent and later biographer Lou Cannon spoke to someone he identified as a Reagan operative about the new administration’s relationship with Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. Cannon paraphrased the Reaganite as saying “that it was important for the administration to give this faction something so they wouldn't turn on the president.” When a reporter asked, "What do you want to give them?" the operative responded: “Symbolism.”
During his presidency, Reagan began the tradition of “phoning in” to the largest annual anti-abortion event, the March for Life, a practice that extended into successive Republican presidencies. He nominated Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court over the objections of social conservatives. While he supported amending the Constitution to protect the life of the unborn and allow school prayer, he never exhausted much political capital to pursue those policies.
Another possible 2012 presidential candidate, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, has a strong pro-life record. Yet at the same time, Barbour has deemphasized abortion as a major electoral issue -- and came under fire last fall when he defended his long time friend Daniels for his “truce” comments. Last month, in an interview for an upcoming magazine piece, I asked Barbour about this distinction he’s drawn.
“The distinction is the distinction of spokesmanship,” he explained. “When I speak about my record, it is a socially conservative record. I am very pro-life and have been consistently pro-life since [first running for office in] 1982.… Having said that, elections ought to be about the issues that on are on the voters’ minds. If you’re smart in politics you want to be telling the people, ‘Here’s what I want to do to solve the problem that you’re really worried about.’ That’s what I think Mitch was saying.”
Despite the impression one might get from his public statements over the past year, Daniels himself has a pro-life record as governor. In 2005, he signed a law requiring doctors performing abortions to offer pregnant women the choice to view an ultrasound and hear the heartbeat of the fetus. In 2009, with his backing, Indiana enacted harsher penalties for acts of violence against unborn children.
Yet save Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, most Republican candidates in the 2012 field will tend to emphasize fiscal and economic issues over social issues. Four years ago, Mitt Romney tried to rebrand himself as a social conservative despite his liberal record on those issues. In this year’s speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference, Romney spoke almost exclusively about the economy and national security, with just one throwaway line about the unborn.
Even when candidates have courted social conservatives, one has to wonder whether any of their promises are likely to happen were they to be elected president. For instance, Tim Pawlenty has said that as president he would support reinstating the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy.
Yet let’s just say Pawlenty is sworn-in as president in January 2013 with the health care law still in the books, the national debt at over $16 trillion, and unemployment at over 8 percent. In practice, would anybody expect a President Pawlenty to prioritize dealing with the gays in the military issue over repealing ObamaCare, reforming entitlements, or addressing the economy?
The conservative hero of the month, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, has a staunch anti-abortion background. Recently the liberal Mother Jones referred derisively to his “abortion crusade.” Yet after Walker was sworn into office, he didn’t start off with a major scuffle on abortion -- he dealt with the fiscal emergency in his state by taking on the public sector unions.
And given the reality of Roe v. Wade, a president has limited ability to fight abortion beyond appointing judges and reinstating the Mexico City policy barring foreign aid from subsidizing abortions overseas (something Daniels supports).
Daniels’ much-derided comments on social issues (and his subsequent failure to frame them more diplomatically) may have been politically stupid. Yet they were largely an expression of the nature of our times -- in which fiscal and economic issues are dominant -- and a reflection of a broader long-term reality within the GOP.
If his remarks are deeply problematic, then the problem social conservatives have with the Republican Party is much deeper than Mitch Daniels.