Peter Cuthbertson challenges the British media's notion that the Republican's Christian base is putting off voters.
In the New York Times, former Bush speechwriter David Frum last month played sock puppet in turn to economic conservatives, social conservatives and foreign policy conservatives, giving the perspective of each on the disappointments of the Bush Administration. Of course, the reality isn’t nearly as simple as dividing them into three discrete categories - most people on the right will sympathise with all three. But it is a piece worth reading particularly for the second perspective, an argument many British observers will never have heard.
British newspapers which aren't vehemently hostile to Republicans still tend to report on the party from one of the other two points of view. The Economist is perhaps the worst offender. Time and again it has mixed accurate accounts of how GOP support has fallen as events in Iraq turned sour with its own complaints about an overly influential religious right and about excessive government spending. Economist articles invariably conclude that when it comes to domestic policy, pork barrel spending and social conservatism are hurting the Republicans in the polls, and so they need to take a step back so that cuts in federal spending can be the priority. The casual reader, not noticing where the opinion poll data stops and the Economist's own axe-grinding begins, would come away believing this unargued position.
If Bush had in fact inflicted significant amounts of unpopular government spending on Americans, it would be a problem suspiciously easy for conservatives to solve - simply cut the spending, as they are wont to do anyway, and the electoral benefits will flow. But this is not the case. The Economist complains all the time about pork barrel spending (politicians earmarking spending for their own parts of the country) and Medicare Part D (free prescription drugs for the elderly) under President Bush. But informed fiscal conservatives should know that pork is a tiny proportion of overall spending. On the other hand, the prescription drugs plan was anything but cheap. But it was also massively popular, with opposition to it usually in the single figures. As Al Gore had similar proposals, it is difficult to see how Bush could possibly have won the 2000 election without the plan. In other words, the actual meat of the increased spending is often exactly what pulled Bush through - not what hurts the GOP in elections.
By contrast, of the three camps the religious right emerges from the Bush Administration with perhaps the fewest blemishes. This is partly a matter of smart regional politics – for example, the election day poll on gay marriage in Ohio arguably may have won Bush the state in 2004, and therefore the Presidency. But it goes deeper than this. Millions of Americans continue to support the Republicans because of the social conservatism of its approaches to issues such as abortion and marriage and the overtly religious appeals it often makes. And unlike shrinking the size of government, this cultural appeal does appear to extend to a large number of floating voters. The GOP’s success in winning them over has been essential to its governing majority.
Part of the reason for the GOP’s problems of late has been the way the Republican establishment has shown itself ill-equipped to respond to these voters’ economic insecurity and their concerns on issues such as health care. This has happened just as Democrats are finding success again with culturally conservative candidates such as new Senators James Webb and Bob Casey, who can strike all the right notes on social issues. The votes of what were once called Reagan Democrats are back in play, and after 2006, the latter part of this description has seemed more applicable.
The most original and perceptive analyses of where the GOP should go from here are currently coming not from the scourges of the religious right one tends to read in the British press, but from some of those who sympathise with it. Just as David Frum’s new book Comeback has received attention from conservatives this side of the pond, I suspect this summer, plenty of smart British conservatives will be paying close attention to the advice of Grand New Party by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, who twin the above social and economic insecurity issues together in advocating that the GOP be the party of Sam’s Club – here we might say ASDA - not the country club.
As tends to be pointed out exhaustively, Christianity doesn’t influence British voters nearly as much as it does Americans. But this should be a cautionary note when making transatlantic comparisons, not (as it often is) an excuse to stop thinking. Just as the religious right identifies with the Republicans on a cultural level, many far from affluent British voters identify with the Conservative Party because they share its opposition to mass immigration, its Euroscepticism, its relatively tough line on crime and its concern about social breakdown – every one of these an issue on which the right has for some time been setting the agenda. Just as the Democrats pulled through in key elections with cultural conservatives like Webb and Casey, in Britain it was an essential part of Labour’s return from the political wilderness to reject the perception of being soft on crime and asylum and to dump civil libertarians in favour of authoritarian Home Secretaries such as David Blunkett, Charles Clarke and John Reid. Increasingly, the centre ground of both our countries’ politics is being defined not by socially liberal free marketeers, but by voters who are socially conservative but who also feel protective of the big government programmes, such as the National Health Service and Social Security.
This is hardly a rosy picture for those of us who believe in smaller government. But it does at least help to the extent that it suggests extreme caution about the view that social conservatism is part of the problem, and its rejection part of any solution. Neither party need wage war on its cultural base. It is only starting from there that a winning coalition can be built.