The PJ Tatler

Would Santorum's Social Conservatism Doom Him?

The conventional wisdom is that social conservatism is a big loser for Republicans. I’ve never believed that myself, for among other reasons the fact that you can’t go wrong appealing to the values that a majority of country claims to support and at some level live by. We’re all hypocrites at some level, of course. That’s human nature. But we all know the world we have isn’t the one we want, and that the old values have done us right. People may or may not want those values infused into government, but most don’t want the government actively trying to destroy those values. Most certainly understand the importance of those values and appreciate anyone who publicly articulates them. To note but two recent examples, Tim Tebow and Jeremy Lin have both become popular (and controversial) because they’re succeeding against the odds, but also because they’ve both been open about their faith and beliefs, and have credited those beliefs for their success to some extent. They’re both more than just your standard millionaire athlete now. As much as that makes them objects of ridicule to the press, it makes them heroes to average folks.

The same conventional wisdom that says social conservatism is a loser for Republicans, says that the more Rick Santorum articulates his social conservatism, the less viable he is as a general election candidate. I have, to some extent, believed this one, mainly because the economy is the paramount issue right now and because Santorum isn’t quite hitting the notes the way a Reagan would (and did). James Taranto offers some unconventional wisdom to counter all that.

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.”

Read the whole thing. Bell goes back to the French Revolution to note that when the left achieves total power, it moves hard against the traditional bulwarks of society. In that time, the revolutionaries desecrated Notre Dame. In our time, the president is directly attacking the first amendment protections of religious freedom while also granting himself power over commerce to which he has no right in the law.

If Bell is on to something and that social conservatism is a net winner over time for the Republicans, then the aggressive, strident and condescending behavior we’ve seen out of the Obama administration regarding its chosen social issues attack — the abortifacient mandate — will backfire and might cost Obama the election. Set up against that concrete Obama action, Santorum can articulate both faith and freedom and be in full harmony with the American tradition. I said he can, by the way. That’s not the same thing as saying that he is currently doing that. The key, it seems to me, is being able to articulate social conservatism from a place of optimism and strength, not judgmentally or from a defensive posture. And, knowing which battles to pick and which ground is the right ground to fight on.

It is telling, that one of Barack Obama’s worst gaffes of 2008 occurred when he delved into social issues and said that he didn’t want his daughters “punished with a baby” if they make a mistake. The line probably seemed tolerant and open minded in Obama’s head at the time, but it exposed an attitude prevalent on the left that sees pregnancy as a disease, not the joyous rise of humanity’s future. For Obama, to have spoken about his own potential grandchildren in such a way was ghastly (and his was a line we cannot imagine coming from Santorum or any social conservative). It didn’t stop Obama from winning, obviously, but it didn’t help. He had to ride to office not on clearly articulating what he really believes, but on gauzy “hope and change” that allows people to cast their own hopes onto him as a kind of political talisman. Why couldn’t Obama run on a platform of forcing religious institutions to violate their consciences? Because he would have lost. So he has had to lie his way into office and then pick the fight, and lie again about what the fight is really about. There’s a reason for that…