Commentary Magazine


Topic: social issues

The GOP’s Growing Vulnerability on Cultural Issues

Several weeks ago I met with an influential Republican lawmaker to discuss economic matters. Yet I found myself raising another set of issues: Republicans need to prepare (especially in 2016) for an assault by Democrats on a range of cultural and quasi-cultural issues, including contraception, gay marriage, abortion, religious liberties, immigration, evolution, and climate change.

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Several weeks ago I met with an influential Republican lawmaker to discuss economic matters. Yet I found myself raising another set of issues: Republicans need to prepare (especially in 2016) for an assault by Democrats on a range of cultural and quasi-cultural issues, including contraception, gay marriage, abortion, religious liberties, immigration, evolution, and climate change.

What I told this GOP lawmaker is that what cultural issues were to Republicans in the 1980s–think welfare, law and order, and George H.W. Bush’s criticism of Michael Dukakis over the Pledge of Allegiance–is what they are to Democrats in the 2010s. This conversation took place before the Supreme Court ruling on the Hobby Lobby case, but the reaction to it confirmed the observation. Democrats, in their frenzied overreaction to the Court ruling–none more overwrought than that of Hillary Clinton–clearly believe this is an issue that will help them politically.

In many places, they’re probably right.

With that in mind, I’d commend to you an article by Ron Brownstein of National Journal, in which he writes:

While Republicans took the offense on most cultural arguments through the late 20th century, now Democrats from Obama on down are mostly pressing these issues, confident that they represent an expanding majority of public opinion. Veteran pollster Stanley B. Greenberg captures this almost unprecedented Democratic assurance when he declares flatly: “Republicans are on the losing side of all of these trends.”… amid public unease over Obama’s economic and foreign policy record, cultural affinity has become the Democrats’ most powerful electoral weapon.

Many Republicans don’t want to focus on cultural and social issues, fearing the issues will damage them while also believing that economic and foreign-policy topics are where their attention should be. But progressives, in combination with a sympathetic press, will push cultural issues front and center. Which means it’s imperative that high-profile Republicans prepare themselves for the coming wave of attacks.

To be clear, I don’t believe the correct response, morally or politically, is for the GOP to become a socially liberal party. But I do think that there are ways to re-frame some of these issues in a manner that will benefit not just the Republican Party but social conservatism itself.

Precisely how to do so is beyond the scope of this post. For now, it’s obvious that Republicans with national ambitions need to gird themselves for the coming offensive; to prepare themselves not just in terms of public policy but also to find a vocabulary to discuss these issues. This means adopting a tone and countenance that is principled and non-censorious, that can articulate one’s views in a way that is not seen as angry and intolerant. (It doesn’t help when one Republican running for president in 2012 promised that if elected, he would talk about the dangers of contraception.)

Obviously one has to approach things on a case-by-case basis. But generally speaking, Republicans need to be seen as speaking out on behalf of moral truths in ways that are more winsome than judgmental, in a way meant to persuade rather than inflame, and making sure their views align with science rather than against it. What this means, in part, is the individuals making the arguments need to radiate some measure of grace rather than zeal. What we’re talking about is using a light touch rather than a heavy hand. To understand the difference, think about how the language (and spirit) of the pro-life movement shifted from accusing people of being “baby killers” to asking Americans to join a movement committed to enlarging the circle of protection to the most vulnerable members of the human community, in which every unborn child is protected in law and welcomed in life. (In addition, science, in the form of sonograms, has been a friend of the pro-life movement. It’s no accident, then, that Americans have become more pro-life in their views over the last 15 years. In 2012, for example, Gallup reported that the 41 percent of Americans who identified themselves as “pro-choice” is one percentage point below the previous record low in Gallup trends, recorded in May 2009, while 50 percent now call themselves “pro-life,” one point shy of the record high, also from May 2009.)

Social conservatism, if it ever hopes to succeed, needs to be articulated in a way that is seen as promoting the human good and advancing human dignity, rather than declaring a series of forbidden acts that are leading us to Gomorrah. That alone isn’t enough to turn the tide in a nation that is trending toward liberal social views on many issues. But it is a start.

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Most Extreme Platform Ever?

The New York Times decided to recycle its recent editorial about the unprecedented rightward lurch of the GOP platform into a news article today. Insisting that the conservative movement was far more moderate in its 1980 GOP platform, the article bemoans the Party’s alleged “sharp turn to the right”:

One party platform stated that Hispanics and others should not “be barred from education or employment opportunities because English is not their first language.” It highlighted the need for “dependable and affordable” mass transit in cities, noting, “Mass transportation offers the prospect for significant energy conservation.” And it prefaced its plank on abortion by saying that “We recognize differing views on this question among Americans in general — and in our own party.”

The other party platform said, “we support English as the nation’s official language.” It chided the Democratic administration for “replacing civil engineering with social engineering as it pursues an exclusively urban vision of dense housing and government transit.” And its abortion plank recognized no dissent, taking the position that “the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed.”

These two paragraphs alone are so misleading it’s hard to believe they were published in the news section. Let’s go through it point by point, with copies of the GOP’s 1980 platform and the GOP’s 2012 platform for comparison.

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The New York Times decided to recycle its recent editorial about the unprecedented rightward lurch of the GOP platform into a news article today. Insisting that the conservative movement was far more moderate in its 1980 GOP platform, the article bemoans the Party’s alleged “sharp turn to the right”:

One party platform stated that Hispanics and others should not “be barred from education or employment opportunities because English is not their first language.” It highlighted the need for “dependable and affordable” mass transit in cities, noting, “Mass transportation offers the prospect for significant energy conservation.” And it prefaced its plank on abortion by saying that “We recognize differing views on this question among Americans in general — and in our own party.”

The other party platform said, “we support English as the nation’s official language.” It chided the Democratic administration for “replacing civil engineering with social engineering as it pursues an exclusively urban vision of dense housing and government transit.” And its abortion plank recognized no dissent, taking the position that “the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed.”

These two paragraphs alone are so misleading it’s hard to believe they were published in the news section. Let’s go through it point by point, with copies of the GOP’s 1980 platform and the GOP’s 2012 platform for comparison.

Claim #1: The 2012 platform is intolerant of immigrants:

One party platform [1980] stated that Hispanics and others should not “be barred from education or employment opportunities because English is not their first language.” … The other party platform [2012] said that “we support English as the nation’s official language.”

But at no point in the 2012 platform does it say, or imply, that those who did not learn English as their first language should be barred from education or employment opportunities. It’s full of praise for the “patriotism” of immigrants, declaring that the U.S. should “embrace the newcomers legally among us, assist their journey to full citizenship, and help their communities avoid isolation from the mainstream of society.”

“To that end, while we encourage the retention and transmission of heritage tongues, we support English as the nation’s official language, a unifying force essential for the educational and economic advancement of—not only immigrant communities—but also our nation as a whole,” it continues.

The 1980s platform also emphasizes the importance of English-language programs for non-English speaking immigrants, proposing that “there should be local educational programs which enable those who grew up learning another language such as Spanish to become proficient in English while also maintaining their own language and cultural heritage.”

In other words, both platforms say pretty much the same things, but the cherry-picking from the Times distorts that message.

Claim #2: The 2012 platform opposes mass transit in cities: 

[The 1980 platform] highlighted the need for “dependable and affordable” mass transit in cities, noting that “mass transportation offers the prospect for significant energy conservation.” … [The 2012 platform] chided the Democratic administration for “replacing civil engineering with social engineering as it pursues an exclusively urban vision of dense housing and government transit.”

The 1980 platform did support mass transit in cities, but noted that the “first line of responsibility must lie with the local governments” — a line the Times notably didn’t include.

The 2012 platform also supports mass transit — “America’s infrastructure networks are critical for economic growth, international competitiveness, and national security. Infrastructure programs have traditionally been non-partisan; everyone recognized that we all need clean water and safe roads, rail, bridges, ports, and airports,” it says.

The problem the GOP cited, again, was that the states should be taking a more active role. The 2012 platform states that “a renewed federal-State partnership and new public-private partnerships are urgently needed to maintain and modernize our country’s travel lifelines to facilitate economic growth and job creation.”

Once again, the contrast between the two platforms in the Times article doesn’t hold up in context.

Claim #3: The 2012 platform is far more extreme on abortion issues:

[The 1980 platform] prefaced its plank on abortion by saying that “we recognize differing views on this question among Americans in general — and in our own party.” … [The 2012 platform’s] abortion plank recognized no dissent, taking the position that “the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed.”

The Times is right that the 2012 platform “recognized no dissent” on the issue of abortion. But it implies that the position in the platform, that — “the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life” — wasn’t shared in the 1980 platform.

In fact, it was: “While we recognize differing views on this question among Americans in general—and in our own Party—we affirm our support of a constitutional amendment to restore protection of the right to life for unborn children,” states the 1980 plank on abortion. “We also support the Congressional efforts to restrict the use of taxpayers’ dollars for abortion.”

While the 1980 platform may have been different from the 2012 platform in tone and detail, that may have had more to do with the format of platforms at the time, which has evolved since. Over the years, the GOP platform has been quite consistent on the issues, particularly abortion. Obviously there will be minor differences from year to year, but there’s little evidence for the notion that the Republican platform has lurched far to the right over the last 32 years. The only way to argue otherwise is to cherry-pick quotes and ignore context, as the Times did in its article.

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Obama Ad Misses the Point on “Small Government”

“If you’re a conservative woman and believe in small government, then Barack Obama is your candidate because he’s keeping the government out of the decisions that should remain between you and God and you and your own conscience.” Those words are from a new ad from the Obama campaign–really–centered on women’s “rights.” In the ad, several self-described Republican women explain why, for the first time, they’re crossing the aisle to vote for Barack Obama: social issues.

Many of the women in the ad seem to misunderstand what the term “small government” means. Several mention the issue of birth control, now mandated by ObamaCare to be provided to women through their health insurance plans. This is the exact opposite of “small government” in action. The opposition to this provision to ObamaCare isn’t that Republicans or conservatives don’t believe in women taking birth control and wish to prevent them from doing so. Opponents of the provision are believers in the First Amendment, who do not wish to see their Catholic brethren forced to pay for something in direct opposition to their theology. Big government is forcing Catholic individuals, hospitals and businesses to violate their religious obligations.

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“If you’re a conservative woman and believe in small government, then Barack Obama is your candidate because he’s keeping the government out of the decisions that should remain between you and God and you and your own conscience.” Those words are from a new ad from the Obama campaign–really–centered on women’s “rights.” In the ad, several self-described Republican women explain why, for the first time, they’re crossing the aisle to vote for Barack Obama: social issues.

Many of the women in the ad seem to misunderstand what the term “small government” means. Several mention the issue of birth control, now mandated by ObamaCare to be provided to women through their health insurance plans. This is the exact opposite of “small government” in action. The opposition to this provision to ObamaCare isn’t that Republicans or conservatives don’t believe in women taking birth control and wish to prevent them from doing so. Opponents of the provision are believers in the First Amendment, who do not wish to see their Catholic brethren forced to pay for something in direct opposition to their theology. Big government is forcing Catholic individuals, hospitals and businesses to violate their religious obligations.

Another provision hotly opposed by conservatives in the ObamaCare bill is the issue of publicly funded abortions. The CT Mirror reports, “Starting in 2014, all health plans nationwide must cover certain essential health benefits, and each state will determine how far those minimum levels of coverage will go.” Already, some states have determined that abortion is an “essential health benefit” and have included them in the services that Americans will be forced to pay for through their insurance company premiums. Despite the fact that it is almost always an elective procedure (barring the rare times that they are performed to save the life of the mother), it is an incredible overreach of government power to mandate that Americans pay for a procedure that half consider against their beliefs. Nevertheless, these self-described small-government Republican women seem to believe that it is the role of the government to force their fellow Americans pay for their elective procedures, despite any moral or religious objections they might have.

This ad is yet another in a series of attempts from the Obama campaign to attempt to divert attention from the economy and the failed record of this administration on everything it has touched. It’ll be interesting to see if this tactic will succeed in distracting Americans from mounting debt, stalled unemployment, and an Iranian regime bent on nuclear weapons. Somehow, I doubt it.

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Is Social Issue Strategy Helping Dems?

The Washington Examiner reports that Democrats are going to try to keep the Todd Akin controversy alive through their convention. At Powerline, John Hinderaker argues that this is the worst possible move for the Obama campaign:

We can only pray that this report is true, and that the Democrats devote all three days in Charlotte to discussions of abortion rights, rape and contraception. If there is one thing we can say with certainty this year, it is that the overwhelming majority of voters don’t want to hear about the social issues. They want to know how we are going to climb out of the four-year economic funk that has been the Obama administration. If undecided viewers tune into the Democratic convention and hear all about abortion, and tune into the Republican convention and hear all about the economy, Romney will win in a landslide.

The thing is, if Democrats talk about the economy, they also lose. They’ve been running a very targeted campaign since the beginning, reaching out to key groups on issues that are unrelated to the economy. Their main targets are Hispanic voters, women and senior citizens — they’ve already locked up the first group, and apparently they think this will help them with the second.

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The Washington Examiner reports that Democrats are going to try to keep the Todd Akin controversy alive through their convention. At Powerline, John Hinderaker argues that this is the worst possible move for the Obama campaign:

We can only pray that this report is true, and that the Democrats devote all three days in Charlotte to discussions of abortion rights, rape and contraception. If there is one thing we can say with certainty this year, it is that the overwhelming majority of voters don’t want to hear about the social issues. They want to know how we are going to climb out of the four-year economic funk that has been the Obama administration. If undecided viewers tune into the Democratic convention and hear all about abortion, and tune into the Republican convention and hear all about the economy, Romney will win in a landslide.

The thing is, if Democrats talk about the economy, they also lose. They’ve been running a very targeted campaign since the beginning, reaching out to key groups on issues that are unrelated to the economy. Their main targets are Hispanic voters, women and senior citizens — they’ve already locked up the first group, and apparently they think this will help them with the second.

One Republican strategist told the New York Times today that the latest social issues strategy will end up costing Democrats the opportunity to define Paul Ryan before the GOP convention. Maybe — but why does that matter? The Obama campaign had more than enough time to successfully define Sarah Palin post-convention in 2008. And if the last few months are any prediction, Obama’s Mediscare campaign against Ryan in the fall will probably make the Priorities USA steelworker ad look tame.

The point of the Democrats’ “war on women” clamor isn’t to make a case for reelection. It’s to knock Romney and Ryan off-message, and divert attention away from their economic prescriptions at the most critical moment for Republicans. The clock is ticking for Ryan to define himself before the end of the GOP convention, when the Medicare attacks will start up full-force.

Thanks to the Akin debacle, the press is on a hair-trigger right now over any stories that involve abortion or social issues. All it will take is one poorly-phrased remark from a random Republican delegate (or, in a pinch, one explosive comment from Joe Biden in Tampa), and the entire Republican convention will be knocked off-message. Democrats are trying to make sure the GOP convention is about anything other than the economy, and as long as the media remains as cooperative as it has been, there’s a chance it could actually work.

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