Social conservatism and electoral success

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“Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the (Republican) party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know, I’ve tried to deal with them.”


– Barry Goldwater, 1994


There was a time when Barry Goldwater, the venerable Arizona senator who was the Republican Party’s presidential nominee in 1964, was the conservative’s conservative. Heck, his nickname was “Mr. Conservative.” But today, Goldwater, who later in life embraced the cause of gay rights and, obviously, had problems with the religious right taking his party hostage, wouldn’t stand a chance of emerging from the GOP presidential primaries. And that is an issue for the Republican Party as it looks toward the 2016 race for the White House.


In the past two presidential elections, John McCain and Mitt Romney, in order to emerge from the GOP primaries with their party’s nomination, had to march to the right in order to pass any number of litmus tests on social issues that had become part of the party’s fabric since it aligned itself with far-right religious elements. McCain always had been viewed as a relatively moderate Republican who was not afraid to buck his party, but he became virtually unrecognizable during the primary season in 2008. Romney had been a moderate Republican governor in Massachusetts who brought his state Obamacare long before it became Obamacare, and he at one time supported abortion rights. You wouldn’t have known that by watching the guy who campaigned for the GOP nomination in 2012.


The problem for both McCain and Romney came when the primaries ended and they had to appeal to a much broader pool of voters for the November elections. To succeed in general elections, Republican presidential candidates have to attract voters – independents and moderate Republicans – whose views can differ greatly from those of the Republican “base” who must be appeased – or even pandered to – in primary season. The candidates had to perform a high-wire act of trying to appear more middle-of-the-road to pull in so-called swing voters, while at the same time avoiding a shift too far toward the middle that might alienate the “true believers” who backed them earlier. But by that point, all of the far-right positions the candidates had taken in the preceding months were pretty much cast in stone in the minds of much of the electorate.


Two years ago, Mitt Romney was not the candidate most feared by President Obama’s re-election team. That was Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor who later served in the Obama administration as ambassador to China. But GOP primary voters got behind a candidate who told them what they wanted to hear – whether Romney believed what he said, or not – rather than back a candidate, in Huntsman, who most likely could have given Obama a much tougher contest, or perhaps even won the general election. But Huntsman, tagged with the dreaded “moderate” label, stood no chance with narrow-interest GOP primary voters.


The folks at the top of the Grand Old Party are well aware of their problem, but the question is whether they can fix it. Some within the party – the business community comes quickly to mind – are weary of seeing matters they find important, such as economic policy, taking a backseat to religious wars over gay marriage, birth control and the like.


But shifting the message, however necessary to future electoral success, won’t be easy.


Much can and will happen between now and 2016, but at present, various polls show former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee leading the way among early GOP contenders. And here’s what Huckabee had to say recently about the conservative Christian stance on the gay marriage debate: “You’ve got to understand, this for me is not about the right side or the wrong side of history, this is the right side of the Bible, and unless God rewrites it, edits it and sends it down with his signature on it, it’s not my book to change.”


Goldwater was right to worry.


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