November 3, 2009, was a great day for the Republican Party with resounding wins in Virginia and, improbably, New Jersey where Bruce Springsteen blared as Chris Christie began his victory speech. (I wonder if Bruce will sue.) But in the midst of the welter of re-upped GOP glory only one year after ignominious defeat, there was one outlier – New York’s Twenty-Third Congressional District.
Now I realize that the surprise loser there, Doug Hoffman, ran as a Conservative, not a Republican. But I submit in this case that was a distinction without a significant difference because virtually all the Republican establishment had lined up behind Hoffman by the day of the election.
So why – in what was clearly a Republican year – did Hoffman lose? Well, there are several reasons and, yes, the Democratic victory was narrow, thinner than the five or so percent that went to withdrawn Republican nominee Scozzafava who herself endorsed the Democratic candidate. Still, the 23rd is a safely Republican, even conservative, district. In a year where the GOP racked up a 20% margin in Virginia and coasted easily in Jersey, a state in which Obama romped in ’08 by 16%, what was the problem?
Well… I might as well say it… social conservatism. America is a fiscally conservative country – now perhaps more than ever, and with much justification – but not a socially conservative one. No, I don’t mean to say it’s socially liberal. It’s not. It’s socially laissez-faire (just as its mostly fiscally laissez-faire). Whether we’re pro-choice, pro-life or whatever we are, most of us want the government out of our bedrooms, just as we want it out of our wallets.
Hoffman’s capital-C Conservative campaign, however, tried to separate itself from the majority parties by making a big deal of the social issues. He was all upset that Scozzafava was pro-gay marriage, seemingly as upset as he was with her support for the stimulus plan. He projected the image of a bluenose in a world that increasingly doesn’t want to hear about these things. Hoffman’s is a selective vision of the nanny state – you can nanny about some things but not about others. I suspect America deeply dislikes nannying about anything.
There is, of course, a message in this for the Republican Party going forward. You can choose to emphasize the social issues or not. Today may show the former is a losing proposition.