Social Conservatives are not to blame for 2008 GOP losses
By Lucas Roebuck
The Republicans will now begin soul searching in earnest, as the party plots its way to a competitive 2010. But first, we will have to endure the blame game why the GOP was shamefully routed by the Democrats for a second election cycle.
The conservative elites, those who populate the think tanks and the Manhattan offices of publications like National Review and The Wall Street Journal, are primarily fiscal conservatives (free market, limited government ) and social libertarians. They have already been trying to blame social conservatives for 2008 losses. Some Manhattan conservatives have even suggested the GOP “ cut off” the religious right.
The real reason why the GOP lost the White House had nothing to do with ideology. Sen. John McCain was just a bad candidate. The moderate Republicans and Washington game-players he surrounded himself with were undisciplined and off message. As much as McCain was a real American hero, he was a lackluster candidate, unable to articulate economic policy at a time when the country, by luck or providence, was thinking about the economy.
Ultimately, presidential elections are about the candidates, not parties. Look at the past several decades. Sen. John Kerry was an elite, out of touch, married-into-money windsurfer who overplayed (and perhaps lied about ) his war record. In 2000, George W. Bush came across as a common man —the sort of guy you’d want to have drinks with — while Vice President Al Gore was robotic. If Gore was a little more exciting, he probably could have turned around Florida. In 1996, Sen. Bob Dole was clearly a boring alternative to Bill Clinton. And in 1992, Clinton was saxophone cool compared to a wimpy President George Bush Sr. Before that, President Ronald Reagan and Bush Sr. won commanding victories against the uninspired likes of Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale and Mike Dukakis. The 10 percent of swing voters care more about the man than the message. Hence the charismatic Sen. Barack Obama’s road to victory was assured when the Republicans nominated the stereotypical old, white guy.
I wonder even if war were closer to the top of our minds if John McCain would have swung the 8 million vote margin.
Of course, McCain’s original, core supporters don’t want to admit that McCain should have never been the GOP nominee. His quest for the White House should have ended in 2000 when the social conservatives rejected him in favor of Bush.
So, in 2008, the McCain camp pandered to the social conservatives, hoping that McCain would be carried into the White House on the strength of the evangelical voters who put Bush there in 2004 and 2008. One might even say that the selection of Gov. Sarah Palin as VP was not a blatant pander to women as much as it was to evangelicals and other social conservatives. So McCain fell short, and the fingers are being pointed at social conservatives. They carried Bush; why did they drop the ball with McCain?
The GOP made the mistake of also trying to run a culture war election without having a culture warrior at the top of the ticket. If Obama was out of touch with the American people, McCain was equally as disconnected. Former Gov. Mike Huckabee was the candidate to run if you wanted to show the Democrat’s disconnect from the God-n-guns crowd and love of the Wall Street elite.
Those who are arguing that the GOP lost the middle because of Bush’s favoring social conservative policies on gay marriage and abortion are also wrong. Bush, and his party, lost favor because the voters believed the media narrative that the second Iraq war was a vain conceit — and the perception that Republicans were complicit allies of greedy Wall Street barons who caused the financial meltdown.
Take California, for instance. Obama carried that state by a healthy margin, yet more of those voters agreed with Bush’s homosexual marriage position than Obama’s, evidenced by the passage of the anti-homosexual marriage Proposition 8. In fact, 30 states, including Florida, have passed similar statutes. Obviously the country is still center-right when it comes to social issues.
Reagan was famous for bringing together the three legs of the metaphorical stool of the conservative movement: fiscal conservatives, social conservatives and military hawks. It’s clear that voters rejected the GOP’s track record over the last eight years on fiscal conservatism and neo-con military policy, not social conservatism.
Social conservatism is the only real hope the GOP has to make inroads to minority voters. Again, in California — where black support for Obama was well over 90 percent — black support for Proposition 8 was 70 percent. Hispanics also heavily favored Proposition 8. Whites, on the other hand, opposed it. The best chance the GOP has to reach black and Hispanic votes in the future is to show how the Democrats don’t share the moral values as they do.
If the conservative elites and McCain sympathizers successfully drive a wedge between fiscal and social conservatives, the GOP will be a minority party for a long, long time. The reality is, however, that the conservative elites and their moderate Republican allies will never be able to marginalize social conservatives, nor should they if they want to win elections.
As they have been since the 1980s, social conservatives will remain the voting strength of the GOP.
Lucas Roebuck is a former managing editor of the Northwest Arkansas Times and Siloam Springs Herald-Leader.