Social Issues and the Santorum Surge
Jeff Bell says they're crucial to a Republican majority.

The Wall Street Journal, Saturday, February 18, 2012

If you're a Republican in New York or another big city, you may be anxious or even terrified at the prospect that Rick Santorum, the supposedly unelectable social conservative, may win the GOP presidential nomination. Jeffrey Bell would like to set your mind at ease.

Social conservatism, Mr. Bell argues in his forthcoming book, "The Case for Polarized Politics," has a winning track record for the GOP. "Social issues were nonexistent in the period 1932 to 1964," he observes. "The Republican Party won two presidential elections out of nine, and they had the Congress for all of four years in that entire period. . . . When social issues came into the mix--I would date it from the 1968 election . . . the Republican Party won seven out of 11 presidential elections."

The Democrats who won, including even Barack Obama in 2008, did not play up social liberalism in their campaigns. In 1992 Bill Clinton was a death-penalty advocate who promised to "end welfare as we know it" and make abortion "safe, legal and rare." Social issues have come to the fore on the GOP side in two of the past six presidential elections--in 1988 (prison furloughs, the Pledge of Allegiance, the ACLU) and 2004 (same-sex marriage). "Those are the only two elections since Reagan where the Republican Party has won a popular majority," Mr. Bell says. "It isn't coincidental."

Mr. Bell, 68, is an unlikely tribune for social conservatism. His main interest has always been economics. He was "an early supply-sider" who worked on Ronald Reagan's presidential campaigns of 1976 and 1980 and Jack Kemp's in 1988. In 1978 he ran an anti-tax campaign for the U.S. Senate in New Jersey, defeating Republican incumbent Clifford Case in the primary but losing to Democrat Bill Bradley.

Even now his day job is to advocate for the gold standard at the American Principles Project. But he's been interested in social issues since the 1980s, when "it became increasingly clear to me . . . that social issues were beginning to be very important in comparison to economic issues," in part because "Reaganomics worked so well that the Democrats . . . kind of retired the economic issues."

In Mr. Bell's telling, social conservatism is both relatively new and uniquely American, and it is a response to aggression, not an initiation of it. The left has had "its center of gravity in social issues" since the French Revolution, he says. "Yes, the left at that time, with people like Robespierre, was interested in overthrowing the monarchy and the French aristocracy. But they were even more vehemently in favor of bringing down institutions like the family and organized religion. In that regard, the left has never changed. . . . I think we've had a good illustration of it in the last month or so."

He means the ObamaCare mandate that religious institutions must provide employee insurance for contraceptive services, including abortifacient drugs and sterilization procedures, even if doing so would violate their moral teachings. "You would think that once the economy started looking a little better, Obama would want to take a bow . . . but instead all of a sudden you have this contraception flap. From what I can find out about it, it wasn't a miscalculation. They knew that the Catholic Church and other believers were going to push back against this thing. . . . They were determined to push it through, because it's their irreplaceable ideological core. . . . The left keeps putting these issues into the mix, and they do it very deliberately, and I think they do it as a matter of principle."

Another example: "In the lame-duck session of the last Congress, when the Democrats had their last [House] majority . . . what was their biggest priority? Well, they let the Bush tax cuts be renewed for another couple of years, but what they did get through was gays in the military. . . . It keeps coming back because it's the agenda of the left. They're not going to leave these issues alone."

American social conservatism, Mr. Bell says, began in response to the sexual revolution, which since the 1960s has been "the biggest agenda item and the biggest success story of the left." That was true in Western Europe and Japan too, but only in America did a socially conservative opposition arise.

The roots of social conservatism, he maintains, lie in the American Revolution. "Nature's God is the only authority cited in the Declaration of Independence. . . . The usual [assumption] is, the U.S. has social conservatism because it's more religious. . . . My feeling is that the very founding of the country is the natural law, which is God-given, but it isn't particular to any one religion. . . . If you believe that rights are unalienable and that they come from God, the odds are that you're a social conservative."

The rise of the tea-party movement heartened many libertarian conservatives, who saw it as leading the Republican Party away from social conservatism. Mr. Bell acknowledges that the tea party is distinct from social conservatism, but he also argues that the two have the same intellectual and political roots:

"I think the tea party is an ally of social conservatism, because it also seems to go back to that idea in the Founding. . . . The tea party brings absolute values, normative values, to a whole set of issues where they really weren't present, namely economics and the size of government." Another commonality is that both arose in reaction to an aggressive left.

The populist nature of social conservatism perplexes liberals, who think less-affluent Americans ought to side with the party of statist economics. The libertarian social scientist Charles Murray presents a more sophisticated variant of the puzzle in his new book, "Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010." Mr. Murray shows that upper-middle-class Americans lead far more conservative lives than the less affluent do, by such measures as marriage, illegitimacy, churchgoing and crime.

Yet Mr. Bell notes that social conservatism is largely a working-class phenomenon: "Middle America does have more children than elite America, and they vote socially conservative, even though they might not necessarily be behaving that way in their personal life. They may be overwhelmed by the sexual revolution and its cultural impacts."

Mr. Bell squares that circle by arguing that social conservatism is "aspirational" and "driven by a sense in Middle America that the kind of cultural atmosphere we have, the kind of incentives, the example set by government, is something that has to be pushed back against." Mr. Murray urges liberal elites to stop being nonjudgmental--to "preach what they practice." To hear Mr. Bell tell it, they should listen instead.

Mr. Murray's book focuses on whites so as to avoid both the confounding variables and the controversies around race. Mr. Bell, for his part, sees in social conservatism opportunities for the GOP to expand its appeal among minority communities. "Latino voters tend to be more socially conservative," Mr. Bell says, noting that in 2008 they backed California's Proposition 8, which overturned a state Supreme Court ruling establishing same-sex marriage, by 53% to 47%. Non-Hispanic whites narrowly opposed the measure.

This naturally leads to a question about immigration, a topic that divides Republicans and inspires harsh rhetoric that can be off-putting to Hispanic citizens. But don't blame social conservatives for that, Mr. Bell says: "The evangelicals and the Catholics--in other words, people who are more involved with their religion--tend to be more pro-immigration."

Even without immediate gains among minority voters, Mr. Bell sees social issues as the path to a GOP majority in 2012. They account for the George W. Bush-era red-blue divide, which Mr. Bell says endures--and, he adds, red has the advantage: "There was one state in 2000 that Bush carried that I would say was socially left of center, and that was New Hampshire," the only state that flipped to John Kerry four years later. "By 2004, every state--all 31 states that Bush carried--were socially conservative states." Those states now have 292 electoral votes, with 270 sufficient for a majority.

By contrast, not all the Kerry states are socially liberal. "The swing vote in the Midwest is socially conservative and less conservative economically," Mr. Bell says, so that "social conservatism is more likely to be helpful than economic conservatism."

Among states that last voted Republican in 1988 or earlier, he classifies two, Michigan and Pennsylvania, as socially conservative, and two more, Minnesota and Wisconsin, as "mildly" so. That adds up to 35 states, with 348 electoral votes, in which social conservatism is an advantage. A socially liberal Republican nominee might win more votes in California and New York--places where the GOP has declined as the country has become more polarized--but his prospects of carrying either would still be minuscule.

Not that any social liberals are seeking the GOP nomination anyway, with the partial exceptions of Ron Paul and, earlier, Jon Huntsman. "It's very different from the 2008 field," Mr. Bell says. "In that situation, Mitt Romney, who I don't think has really changed much in views since 2008--he was considered the conservative alternative to [John] McCain and [Rudy] Giuliani. Now, almost by default, he's considered the establishment candidate, with Santorum and [Newt] Gingrich running to his right."

Mr. Santorum is the most consistent and unapologetic social conservative in the race, but Mr. Bell rejects the common claim that he places too strong an emphasis on social issues: "I think that's unfair to Santorum. He goes out of his way to say that he has an economic platform, he isn't just about social issues."

He notes that on NBC's "Meet the Press" last weekend, host David Gregory opened his interview with the candidate by asking a series of questions about social issues, one of which he prefaced by saying that such issues "have come . . . to define your campaign."

Mr. Santorum disputed the premise: "It's not what's defining my campaign. I would say that what's defining my campaign is going out and talking about liberty, talking about economic growth, talking about getting manufacturing jobs back here to this country, trying to grow this economy to make sure that everybody in America can participate in it."

This exchange, like many other Santorum interviews, can be seen as a synecdoche of the liberal-conservative social-issue dynamic Mr. Bell describes. To the extent that social issues have "come to define" Mr. Santorum's campaign, it is in substantial part because liberal interviewers like Mr. Gregory have kept pushing them. If Mr. Bell is right, Mr. Santorum should end up benefiting politically, including in November if he is the nominee.

But what about voters who don't make a high priority of social issues, who aren't unwilling to vote for a social conservative but might be put off by a candidate who is--or is made to appear--a moralistic busybody? "The key thing along that line is the issue of coercion," Mr. Bell says. "Who is guilty of coercion? I happen to think it's the left." Mr. Obama and his supporters are "going to imply that Santorum wants to impose all the tenets of traditional morality on the American population. He doesn't. He just doesn't want the opposite imposed on Middle America."

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