Not This Year
Republicans and the Culture Wars: Why It Won't Work This Year
Republicans used to be able to turn to issues like guns and gays when the going got tough. Not anymore.
You know the Republican Party is going through a rough patch when it can’t even conduct a proper culture war.
Once upon a time, the GOP knew how to pick a compelling values issue, or at least demagogue one in a way that was guaranteed to make the Democrats look like a pack of sneering, godless Francophiles. Partial-birth abortion—now there was a winner. Ditto gun rights. And, man on man, did conservatives milk the gay-marriage issue for all it was worth, back when it was worth something.
But of late, the party seems to be losing its touch. Oh, sure, Republicans have enjoyed watching President Obama’s tussle with the Catholic Church over insurance coverage for contraception. Indeed, many party leaders rushed to pile on, tossing about phrases like “freedom of conscience” and “war on religion.”
As a broader political proposition, however, getting labeled the party that wants to limit access to contraception is less ballsy than flat-out nuts.
Neither does the situation seem likely to rectify itself any time soon. The staunch conservatism of the Republican base notwithstanding, not one of the party’s remaining presidential contenders has the makings of a competent culture warrior.
Newt Gingrich? Please. God may have forgiven the speaker’s sins, but, if the polls are any indication, American women are still pretty steamed. The minute Newt opened his mouth to lecture the general electorate on family values he’d likely get a kitten heel to the crotch.
Ron Paul has the longest marriage and most grandfatherly manner of the bunch, but his libertarianism is poorly suited to arguing that government should be messing around in people’s private lives. (And listening to him out of the trail, it’s pretty clear that social issues aren’t what blow the good doctor’s gown around.)
Romney, with his picture-perfect family and squeaky-clean lifestyle, should be a terrific values crusader. Alas, he is Mormon and so must be careful about steering the race toward matters of faith, lest someone push him to have an in-depth chat about the LDS Church’s fondness for baptizing dead Jews.
Then there’s Rick Santorum, who, by all rights, should dominate the values battlefield. He’s got the loving wife, the passel of kids, the goofy-dad vibe. And, let’s face it, the man has never met a policy issue he didn’t see through the prism of family values. Tax reform? Regulatory reform? Deficit spending? As Rick tells it, the first step toward addressing any of these problems is to reinstate the ban on sodomy.
On pure piety points, no one can beat Rick. We’re talking here about a guy who has said he would use the presidential bully pulpit to warn of how contraception tempts even married couples to get busy in ways contrary to God’s will. This, of course, is part of the problem. Opposing abortion is one thing. Opposing contraception even among married folks doesn’t make Rick seem like a paragon of moral virtue so much as a refugee from the 16th century.
But it’s not just that the senator’s positions are out of touch with the mainstream electorate (a mere 8 percent of Americans think birth control is immoral; 84 percent of U.S. Catholics think you can use it and still be a good Catholic). It’s that the guy is simultaneously too pious and too pathetic.
Take his views on gay rights. Plenty of people object to gay marriage, but Santorum has long come across as a bit of a clown on the entire subject of homosexuality. It’s some combination of his whiny manner and his slightly-too-colorful blatherings about how “sodomy” is kinda like polygamy or incest but not quite so bad as man-on-dog action. With that kind of commentary, small wonder Dan Savage decided to execute his devastating lexical takedown of the senator.
Perhaps saddest of all, when things get uncomfortable, Santorum crumbles. Pressed recently about a section of his 2005 book, It Takes a Family, that laments “radical feminists” undermining the family by pushing women to work outside the home, the senator pleaded ignorance and claimed the bit had been written by his wife.
To be sure, this whole Serious Candidate business is new to Santorum. Still, this is no way to run a culture war.