You’re comfortably orthodox in the main matters of daily life: marriage, family, church. And yet, no plausible candidate for president speaks for you so eloquently as the late Ronald Reagan; and yet, some candidate next year will receive the Republican nomination for president and probably outrank in your affections anyone the Democrats nominate, so that, anyway, hmmm…
Consider the predicament of the Reagan conservative in 2007 and beyond. He’s going to vote for the thrice-married, gay-rights-supporting Rudy Giuliani? Or for John McCain, a leading architect of a campaign finance law seen as an impairment of voter free speech? Or the Mitt Romney who only recently migrated to the socially conservative positions of the great Reagan — and is, well, you know, a Mormon?
The social conservatives whose votes buttress the Republican Party are experiencing a Gandalf Moment.
Frodo the Hobbit remarks, as darkness descends on Middle Earth, “I wish it need not have happened in my time.” “So do I…,” the wizard replies. “But that is not for [us] to decide. All that we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” It’s another way of saying that life, especially political life, can be urgent and challenging.
Sometimes no choice looks even halfway ideal. Deciding what to do with the time actually allotted instead of desired can lead to a general wrenching-out of hair. Guiliani? What if he cynically abandoned the social conservatives? Romney? What if his chances of victory were smaller than Rudy’s? Does McCain’s recent outreach to the social right suggest a deeper commitment to the social issues than formerly? Or, if not, what about the more socially acceptable but financially handicapped Sam Brownback and Mike Huckabee? Is it better to die in the last ditch for principle, or hold one’s nose and make the best terms possible?
Events will eventually point the way to answers. Clear enough right now is a historical datum: It’s a long time indeed since social conservatives last felt so boxed in.
The political wars and animosities of the Bush years have obscured the old wisdom that politics is the art of compromise, and that only once in a great while do you get most, far less all, of what you want. Naturally, social conservatives — sometimes known as the “religious right” — are smart enough to know this. Their beef is with having to defend terrain they see as outside proper political boundaries. Who would have supposed 30 years ago — or 20 — that gay marriage was on the way to becoming a political issue?
A previous supposition had been that politicians and judges generally left moral matters to the regulation of the community at large, meaning pastors, parents and the like. It was only with the school prayer decisions of the 1960s that government added moral and philosophical questions to its agenda.
You can see the problem. If politics indeed is the art of compromise, what does it mean when politicians address the moral absolutes, as with the matter of unborn human life? You compromise — how? By making abortion sometimes illegal, sometimes not? And in the process outrage everyone? It is thus with gay marriage. Where lies the possible compromise?
Not that in some Ayn Randian prehistory, government viewed all such matters as negligible. States generally prohibited abortion and prescribed marriage as a rite for heterosexuals alone. Such judgments rested on the popular will — revocable whenever that will should change. When such questions became national rather than local in character, local people suddenly became disenfranchised — and so needed help in Congress and the White House. The “religious right” was born.
What social conservatives will do with their Gandalf Moment, 2006-07, we cannot know yet. Romney could sweep away all doubts, or a major nose-holding campaign could be in the offing. Whatever happens, all of America has a chance to confront the consequences of Big, Hungry Government, and not just the economic consequences, but also the moral ones — bigger in their own way than all the rest.