Republicans are living in Mitch Daniels’s shadow, but they hardly know it.
The Indiana governor and potential presidential candidate was criticized by many conservatives when he called for a truce on social issues so the party could focus on getting the nation’s fiscal house in order. At the time, the conventional wisdom said that was not a ticket toward winning the Republican nomination.
But that’s exactly what all of the leading Republican contenders for the presidency are doing—and for good reason. The culture wars of the 1990s have taken a back seat to the bread-and-butter economic concerns facing millions of Americans who are out of work or struggling to make ends meet.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has been arguing he’s the management guy as he prepares for a second presidential run. That is a sharp contrast from 2008, when he sought to convince Republicans that his conservative values were as authentic as his time spent at Bain Capital or running the Winter Olympics.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour has focused more on his economic record, particularly working to rebuild the Mississippi coastline after Hurricane Katrina, than his conservative bona fides on abortion and gay marriage.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., isn’t the best messenger, given his multiple marriages.
Even former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who has moved to appeal to all elements of the Republican coalition, has nonetheless focused much more on kitchen-sink issues. He’s injected himself in the polarizing labor fights in the Midwest, but has barely taken on gay marriage or abortion. His two-minute kickoff video for his presidential exploratory committee focused entirely on jobs, spending and entitlements—with not a mention of values.
“The 800-pound gorilla is still jobs and economic issues,” said Republican media consultant Rick Wilson. “My personal view is that talking about a truce is politically not where you want to be. But having a de facto one instead of a de jure one is pretty smart.”
The truce isn’t just applying to the nominal Republican frontrunners. The absence of values-focused candidates that traditionally populate the presidential field speaks volumes of the state of the Republican electorate.
In GOP primaries past, there was a near-guarantee that there would be at least one candidate serving as the values-oriented conservative. In 1988, it was Pat Robertson. 1996 brought Alan Keyes into the fray, and in 2000, he was joined by Gary Bauer.
In the Iowa caucuses dominated by evangelicals, they could count on double-digit showings—enough to make noise in a crowded field.
This year, the leading social conservatives are nowhere to be found. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, after winning the Iowa caucuses in 2008, is showing little sign of a comeback.
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the consummate social warrior, isn’t taking any steps to run. Rep. Mike Pence, a favorite among social conservatives, passed up a run for president to pursue the Indiana governorship.
Only Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum are openly courting evangelicals—but even they are hardly single-issue candidates. You’re much more likely to see Bachmann on Fox News railing against the Affordable Care Act or the deficit than abortion or gay marriage. And Santorum, as a former two-term senator, also has a broader portfolio to run on.
The candidates’ economy-centric messages are consistent with the mood of the public, where public opinion polling has shown a steady move toward more concern about economic issues, particularly the deficit, than social issues—and those attitudes are mirrored among Republican voters and evangelicals.
The times truly are changing. In 2004, gay marriage was a rallying point for Republicans, particularly in efforts to get out the vote in that year’s elections. But there has been a remarkable evolution in attitudes toward same-sex marriage.
When President Obama signed legislation allowing gays to serve openly in the military last year, the opposition was muted from the usually-reliable critics—a sign that leading Republicans don’t want to alienate independents and a younger generation of voters who don’t share their parents’ resistance to gay marriage.
What we’re seeing, Republican strategists agree, is that the hot-button cultural issues are still out there, but being suffused by economic ones. They’re being framed in terms of spending, and not the other way around. So, cutting funds to National Public Radio—a classic conservative rallying cry—is brought up in terms of helping reduce the deficit.
Ditto the recent debate over legislation that would cut federal funding to Planned Parenthood. Pawlenty’s reaction? “Washington has a massive spending problem, and we need to set priorities.”
“What will be different in 2012 is the emergence of the tea party and a renewed focus on spending, the deficit, and taxes, which according to public opinion data will dominate the debate in both the primary and the general election,” said Republican uber-strategist Ralph Reed, the former executive director of the Christian Coalition. “My sense is the fiscal issues will suffuse with the social agenda, not displace it entirely.”
This article appears in the April 6, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.