The Social/Fiscal Conservatism debate is back…

Michael Tanner, senior fellow at the Cato Institute and author of the excellent Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution, has some advice for the GOP on the upcoming elections.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before…

Despite their repeated threats to stay home if Republicans deviated from a commitment to conservative social issues, it wasn’t the Religious Right that deserted Republicans in 2008 (or 2006, for that matter). Turnout among self-described members of the Religious Right remained steady from 2004 to 2008, and these voters remained loyally Republican. Roughly 70 percent of white evangelicals and born-again Christians voted Republican in 2006, and 74 percent in 2008, essentially in line with how they have been voting for the past two or three decades.

It was suburbanites, independents, and others who were fed up with the Republican drift toward big government who stayed home — or, worse, voted Democratic in 2008. Republicans carried the suburbs in both 2000 (49 to 47) and 2004 (52 to 47), but in 2008, suburban voters — notably wealthy, college-educated professionals, many of whom consider themselves moderate on social issues but economically conservative — voted for Barack Obama by a margin of 50 to 48.

You see where this is going: Tanner is urging Republicans to focus the 2010 race on the broad themes of Big Government and fiscal responsibility, and not get distracted with secondary culture war debates (i.e., “immigration, the 14th amendment, gay marriage, and when and where mosques should be built”). These issues play well in the GOP primaries, he says, but are handicaps in the general election.

[I]ndependent and suburban voters are now regretting their Democratic flirtation. They didn’t vote for record deficits, the health-care bill, bailouts to banks and auto companies, or cap-and-trade…. But these voters are not culture warriors. Polls show that while they are fiscally conservative, and very upset by excessive government spending and rising deficits, they are socially moderate, tending toward indifference or even support on issues like gay marriage….

If one needs a template for victory, Republicans need look no further than last year’s gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey. Bob McDonnell and Chris Christie did not run as culture warriors. Instead they won their upset victories on issues like jobs, the economy, and a commitment to limited government.

We witness this same debate every other election, and it never seems to lead anywhere. While I’m sympathetic to Tanner’s view, I don’t think we can make broad statements about the American electorate. November will bring hundreds of individual races, held in districts with concerns and priorities unique to those populations. Elections in border states like Texas and Arizona, for example, may very well turn on the immigration issue, while the same approach would flatline in Connecticut. Common sense dictates that you use what works, where it works.

Brian Saint-Paul

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Brian Saint-Paul was the editor and publisher of Crisis Magazine. He has a BA in Philosophy and an MA in Religious Studies from the Catholic University of America, in Washington. D.C. In addition to various positions in journalism and publishing, he has served as the associate director of a health research institute, a missionary, and a private school teacher. He lives with his wife in a historic Baltimore neighborhood, where he obsesses over Late Antiquity.

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