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In the Washington Post, Sebastian Payne reports on the “sense of despair among white evangelicals about the Republican Party many once considered their comfortable home.”
They’re alarmed because the country is moving leftward on social issues, and they “feel out of place in a GOP increasingly dominated by tea party activists and libertarians who prefer to focus on taxes and the role of government and often disagree with social conservatives on drugs or gay rights.” They want a presidential candidate who actively champions their causes.
So what else is new? I was writing similar articles back in 1997, when Focus on the Family leader James Dobson warned that social conservatives would stay home during the next elections if congressional Republicans didn’t start putting their issues at the top of their agenda. That’s still the implicit threat: Payne writes that social conservatives “could just as easily decide to sit out a presidential race if they feel the party again has produced a nominee who does not represent their interests.”
So let me skip to the end of this story. The next Republican presidential candidate is unlikely to be a fire-breather on social issues, and social conservatives will turn out to vote for him anyway. If that candidate wins, social conservatives will get some policies and nominees they like better than the ones they’ve gotten from President Barack Obama, and some of their causes will get mentioned in presidential speeches.
That’s the way the social conservatives’ alliance with the Republican Party has always worked. No Republican nominee has ever talked as much about social issues as he has about taxes. The nominee has never been one of the most socially conservative candidates in the primaries. That’s partly because social conservatives rarely unite around one candidate to be their champion in the primaries. Their disunity actually increases their influence, because it means that almost all of the candidates have an incentive to court them.
It’s true, as Payne writes, that public support for same-sex marriage and legal pot is a new development in politics. But abortion has been the top issue for social conservatives for decades, and the public hasn’t moved to the left on that issue.
Neither has the Republican Party. In the mid-1990s, there were prominent Republican governors who wanted to make the party pro-choice. Some of them even sought the presidency. This time around, there won’t be a serious pro-choice candidate in the primaries. The next nominee will probably be an opponent of same-sex marriage, too, albeit one who makes a point of how little a president can do on the issue.
Some Supreme Court justices read liberal policies on abortion and same-sex marriage into the Constitution, and some don’t. Republicans haven’t appointed a judge who has done that in 24 years. Democrats nearly always do.
If the 2016 election looks close, social conservatives will note such contrasts and make their voting decisions accordingly.
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