The who’s who of Republican leaders gathered this weekend at the Faith and Freedom Conference attested to the power social conservatives still hold in the party.
But the speeches given by those luminaries demonstrated that while social conservatives continue to have pride of place in Republican ranks, the issues that have historically defined their coalition might not any longer. Whether it was House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., or presidential front-runner Mitt Romney, most speakers replaced talk of abortion with talk of debt and deficit. Instead of gay marriage, they focused on the economy.
Not only was that fine with evangelicals at the conference, most indicated it’s what they prefer.
Ryan’s speech Friday morning, for instance, sounded like the one he has given countless times in recent months as he has argued for sweeping cuts in the budget and historic changes to Medicare. Democrats, he said, “raided Medicare, rationed it, and then they don’t even try to save it,” he told the audience. Even though the speech was heavy on numbers and facts and light on red-meat issues, he received a standing ovation from the audience.
Easing the shift in focus was the way speakers addressed fiscal issues: The country’s debt was discussed not as a bottom-line issue, but as a moral one. The evangelical fervor that has animated the abortion debate has now turned toward balancing the budget.
"The debt we are amassing as a nation and passing on to our children is immoral," Romney said in a Friday evening speech that largely avoided social issues. "It was once said that we should pass a torch to the next generation. Instead, we are passing on an unpaid bill."
Time and time again, growing the size of government was described as tantamount to reducing personal freedom and blaspheming the vision of America laid out by the divinely inspired Founding Fathers.
“Social conservatives understand that the bigger the government, the smaller the person, and more repressed the family,” said former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, who is expected to announce his bid for president on Monday.
The mood over the weekend was a manifestation of what polls have shown since the recession started in 2008: Most voters, including conservative Republicans, are far more focused on the economy than on abortion or other social issues. It’s why a potential candidate like Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels was able to suggest a “truce” on social issues and still remain one of the leading contenders for the GOP nomination, until he decided last month not to contend for it.
Social issues are important, said Nighta Davis, head of the Georgia-based American USA Patriots. But she added: “They will not come into place until we straighten out the economy."
To be sure, the conference hardly shelved abortion and other social issues. Many speakers, even if focused on the economy, at least mentioned the importance of “protecting life,” and some also included opposition to gay marriage. Former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, who is considering a run for U.S. Senate in the Buckeye State next year, reminded the crowd Saturday morning that President Bush was reelected in 2004 in part because of a ballot question in many states that sought to define marriage as between a man and a woman.
And the speaker who most electrified the crowd was Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., a tea-party favorite whose speech appeared to come from a culture-warrior handbook. She emphasized defending marriage, protecting life, and home-schooling in remarks that drew several raucous standing ovations, a reminder of her presidential campaign’s potency among evangelical voters.
Social conservatives remain the heart of the Republican Party, said William Bennett, President Reagan’s education secretary, who spoke at the conference on Saturday morning. But most are willing to concede the economy takes precedence in 2012.
“A lot of people are willing to suspend their priorities,” Bennett told National Journal after his speech. “As long as they’re respected.”
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