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The GOP’s weakest leg

The Republican coalition is often described as a three-legged stool made up of foreign policy, social issue and fiscal conservatives. It’s an apt metaphor because it captures the fact that all three legs need to be secure in order for the party to keep from collapsing.

For most of the last two decades, foreign policy (strong defense) and social (traditional values) conservatives have at various times been blamed for Republican defeats. But fiscal conservatism (lower and fewer taxes; less government spending) has always escaped from Republican losses unscathed.

2012 produced a different outcome. Everyone agrees that the 2012 election was about the economy, and that Republicans suffered a drubbing.

I’m a fiscal conservative who believes in lower taxes and entitlement program reform. But politically, these issues appear to be the weakest leg of the Republican coalition. The public is more than willing to raise taxes on the rich, and they don’t want cuts in Social Security and Medicare.

Despite the unpopularity of these ideas, various Republican office holders and pundits continue to blame social issues for election defeats.

In a debate I participated in on CNN shortly after the election, former governor and presidential candidate Jon Huntsman said Republicans need “to stop moralizing to people” and stop focusing on social issues.

Senator McCain advised that Republicans “leave the [abortion] issue alone.” In a Washington Post op-ed last Friday, pro-abortion rights Republican Victoria Toensing wrote that “as a political matter, the pro-life position has not helped Republicans.”

She mentioned that McCain lost Catholic voters by eight points in 2008 and that Romney lost them by two points this year. This happened, she wrote, “even after four years of President Obama’s strong pro-choice position and Obamacare’s forcing certain Catholic entities to cover birth control.”

She went on to assert that “As a results-oriented matter, the pro-life position cannot prevail” and that “in legislating morality we Republicans are vulnerable to hypocrisy.” “As for morality,” she concluded, “our party should live it, not legislate it.”

It’s an all-too-familiar argument. But does anyone really think Romney lost because he talked too much about abortion and marriage? How about McCain in 2008? In all four states where traditional marriage lost (narrowly in all four cases), it polled better than Mitt Romney. That means there were many voters who voted for traditional marriage but not for Romney.

And how many voters do you think had foreign policy foremost on their minds when they stepped into the voting booth? A pre-election Reuters poll found foreign policy issues ranking low. In fact only 2% of respondents ranked “war/foreign conflicts” and “terrorism/terrorist attacks” as their most important issues.

The fact is that Republicans have been pummeled in two straight presidential elections, and both those elections were decided on economic issues. In fact, every time in the last 20 years cutting Social Security and Medicare were major issues, the GOP has lost.

Now, I don’t think Republicans should cave on the fiscal cliff talks even though numerous polls show the public would blame congressional Republicans if we go off the fiscal cliff. A Pew poll last week found that 53% of Americans would blame Republicans, while only 29% would blame President Obama. My reaction is: So what? We should stand on principle. But then don’t tell me that I have to abandon protections for innocent human life and normal marriage.

Democrats insist that any deal include taxes increases on wealthy Americans. Republicans oppose tax increases, but more and more Republican leaders are open to closing loopholes and eliminating deductions.

Polls show that the public wanted tax increases as part of a deal (as long as it is not their own taxes). A recent CNN/OCR poll found two-thirds of respondents, including 60% of independents, want tax increased included. Even a majority of self-described conservative Republicans supported tax increases. And let’s not even get into how unpopular entitlement reform is. Republicans want it on the table, and it should be, but it’s very unpopular with the public.

Despite Obama’s spending and fiscal irresponsibility, a recent Gallup poll found that since January 2010 the share of Americans with positive attitudes toward the “federal government” has grown, from 46% to 51%, and toward “socialism” from 36% to 39%. Clearly, Obama’s campaign focusing on class warfare and making the rich pay their “fair share” paid off.

Republicans need to stay committed to fiscal conservatism—without it the Republican stool would collapse. But the idea that cuts to popular programs are an easier sell to the public than conservative positions on foreign policy or social issues is simply incorrect. In fact, the evidence is clear that many voters who disagree with the GOP economic agenda vote Republican anyway because of values issues.

I still believe in the Republican coalition. But anyone who believes the party can jettison its support for a strong military and traditional values needs to explain how they will account for the voters who will leave the party if it changes its positions on those issues. There aren’t enough socially moderate Republicans-in-waiting to replace the millions of social issues conservatives who would be lost.

Republicans have a lot of work to do to start winning again. But it’s a fallacy to suggest that they can do so by abandoning, or even remaining silent on, life, marriage and religious liberty.

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