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


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.

  • Brian Pessaro

    During the 2006 Florida gubernatorial election between (then) Republican Charlie Crist and Democrat Jim Davis, I lamented to my brother-in-law that from a pro-life point of view there was no good choice. I vented that I wasn’t even going to vote, but he badgered me. So like a good pro-life Catholic, I did my duty and voted for Crist. A lot of good that did.

    Michael Tanner is right when he says, “Despite their repeated threats to stay home if Republicans deviated from a commitment to conservative social issues…Turnout among self-described members of the Religious Right remained steady from 2004 to 2008, and these voters remained loyally Republican.”

    I believe abortion is the premier social injustice of our day. I would NEVER vote for a candidate who favored legalized abortion. The problem is Republican candidates know conservative Christians like me think this way and take advantage of it to get our votes. They know people like me have no where else to go.

  • Austin

    Obama was elected in 2008, and the Democratic Congress in 2006, not out of any great love for the Democratic Party among moderates who can go either way, but by the gross incompetence of W Bush and the Republican Congress. Obama has no business being President, as we see more and more of every day, but I blame the incompetence of W Bush more than anything else.

  • Kevin J Jones

    Tanner writes: “Turnout among self-described members of the Religious Right remained steady from 2004 to 2008, and these voters remained loyally Republican”

    Is Tanner’s account accurate? Can the Cato Institute be trusted?

    From Karl Rove’s essay “A Way Out of the Wilderness”:
    “More than 4 million Americans who go to church more than once a week and voted in 2004 stayed home in 2008. They represented half the margin between Obama and McCain.”

  • Joe H

    You know, I’m really growing tired of this entire argument.

    If these “socially moderate” voters really “lean towards indifference” on these issues, then why does it matter what the Republican’s position is on it? Won’t these voters prioritize their issues and vote for the candidate who ranks best on them? Will issues at the bottom of their list really matter?

  • Mary Ann

    What does make a difference and a big difference is that we know what we believe and why we believe it and then support that belief every day. We support it in the way we act, in the manner of our speech, in the treatment we afford to others, in our prayers and in the incidentals of life. ‘They’ and you will know what you believe by how you act daily. If you cannot tell by looking at your daily life how you believe than no one else can either.
    That being said, the next part of supporting your belief system is to support it politically by, at a minimum, voting in each and every election. If you don’t vote in the primaries, then you are partly at fault when you think you have no choice at the final election. If you don’t like the choices you are offered in the primaries, then find better candidates to run in the primaries and support them. We are lucky. We live in a country that allows us to change what we don’t like and there is plenty of that today.
    So, when your grandchildren and great grandchildren learn how much freedom was available to you (hopefully it still is to them when they learn from you)and they ask what you did since you had all that freedom to do whatever you wanted to do, what will you say you did with your freedom of speech, your freedom to vote, your freedom to act, your freedom to worship, your freedom to learn, your freedom to travel, your freedom to do anything that did not hurt someone else – until you give that freedom away to someone else for what – the promise that they will take care of you forever, will take care of your mother better than you could, will teach your children better than you can, will never kill a sick baby, will never kill a fetus that they don’t want, will never kill another living person for their own benefit, will give you more money in a check for the rest of your life until they decide not to give you more medicine because it is too expensive, for what price would you like to tell your grandchildren or great grandchildren that you were willing to exchange your freedom and theirs for promises that ‘they’ have never kept and ‘they’ expect you to pay for anyway while ‘they’ exclude themselves from the paying part and take a greater piece of the pie than you are promised. Look into the eyes of those children and see what they see when you tell them you traded freedom for the slick promise of utopia for all that even God told you could only be had in His Kingdom. Here on earth in this life we are to work for and with each other.
    We are our brother and sister’s keepers – He did not say the government is your brother and sister’s keepers – He said we were.
    So, let’s be about our Father’s work. He blessed us with freedom and resources the world has never known. We need to take the responsibility that comes with it and move on. Good men and women will be elected to office when the majority of good men and women vote for them and stay vigilant to ensure that they are not tempted from the path of goodness that will bring us all together toward a goal of unity of purpose here with a reward of peace with God that only He can promise, the Security of God is the only security that I trust.
    It is going to take time and effort and we need to quit blaming others. As long as it is their fault, we cannot fix it. If we take some of the blame, we can fix it. So, let’s move forward and fix it.

  • Don L

    I tend to want to simplify it. Nothing is stopping a morally minded social conservative from voting for prudent capitalism and small goverment with a strong defense and one that facilitates private charity to the fullest. I have found that the most vehement opposition to such a person comes from the fiscal conservative right – barely concealing their loathing of “one -issue” voters. It appears, as I remind them, that after money you don’t have many issues worth fighting for, such as life and freedom itself? I also ask them if the big government types that they also hate for stealing their money and property aren’t precisely able to do that because they lack a moral spiritual foundation that is essential in order to keep their captitalism properly functioning. No answer. I’ve decided most, but not all, simply are just like the liberals, in that the resent a God interfering with their life choices and giving them rules that they ought to live by. Like the liberals, they don’t want to serve.