Thousands of words have been spent, at this point, giving advice to the Democrats in the wake their electoral defeat. How about some advice for Republicans?
First and foremost, don’t buy the “moral values” hype. The immediate post-election conventional wisdom — that it was all about discomfort with “two dudes kissing,” as Jon Stewart put it on last Wednesday’s trainwreck of a Daily Show (failed attempts by bitter liberals to be funny followed by an extra-long interview with Charles Schumer do not, it turns out, make for very good television) — was wrong, and has been ably debunked by the likes of Paul Freedman, David Brooks, and John Hood. (If you only want to read one of those, Hood’s is the best.) In the first place, “moral values” can mean a lot of things, particularly among those rejecting a candidate like John Kerry, who seemed at times allergic to clear and principled positions, who seems to take the attitude toward wives that most men take toward ATM machines (any one will do, as long as it has money), and who opposed the enormously popular ban on partial-birth abortion. More to the point, social conservatives are no more important a part of the Republican coalition than they have been in the past. In fact, as Hood points out, the percentage of voters who attend church at least weekly was the same in 2004 as it was in 2000, and while Bush gained about one point with this group, he gained three to four points among those who attend church seldom or never. (“Yep, it was the atheist vote that really put Bush over the top in 2004,” Hood notes dryly.)
It’s important to keep this in perspective, because if Republicans are going to maintain and grow their majority in future election cycles, they need to be able to appeal beyond the culturally conservative base. Bush did that thanks to a huge advantage on terrorism: as Freedman points out, voters who listed “terrorism” as the top concern went for Bush 86 percent to 14 percent, an even larger margin than those who cited “moral values.” If the president has a mandate for anything, it’s the continuation of his forward strategy in the war on terror.
Social conservatives deserve a piece of the policy spoils, of course, and a shift toward originalism in the judiciary is a good place to start; if that means denying Arlen Specter his chairmanship, so be it. But pushing much harder than that could be dangerous to the health of the party.
As John Fund has noted, the dark spot on the GOP’s election came in the state legislatures, where increasing polarization flipped the balance in the Democrats’ very narrow favor. “Republicans shouldn’t forget that their new dominance is tenuous and is unlikely to last if the party remains uncompetitive on both coasts,” writes Fund, and he’s right. Governors like Arnold Schwarzenegger in California, Linda Lingle in Hawaii, and Bob Ehrlich in Maryland are successful at sticking to Republican principles on economic issues even as they sit across the divide on cultural issues, but they all face solidly Democratic legislatures — which this election has made even more solidly Democratic in the former two cases (Maryland did not elect state legislators last week). State Republican parties, it seems, are having trouble striking the balance necessary to win in Blue territory, particularly during a presidential election year.
Federalism lights the way out of this conundrum. The recognition of gay unions should be entirely a matter for the states, and state parties should be free to differ as to the proper political approach; if a constitutional amendment is necessary, it is to restrain the courts rather than to define marriage for the nation. (Senator Orrin Hatch was toying earlier this year with introducing an amendment that would be ideal.) Likewise, the overturning of Roe vs. Wade ought to be the end-point of the pro-life movement on the federal level; abortion after Roe should become — as it was before Roe — a state matter.
I’d better admit that I’ll be on the opposite side of many conservatives in these state-level battles: I favor gay marriage, and though I’d love to see a judiciary that would overturn Roe, a proxy for so much judicial mischief, I’d prefer to see early-term abortion stay legal. But we’ll remain bound on foreign policy and economic issues in a strong Republican coalition despite our differences. And that’s the point, isn’t it?
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