Friendly Fire

As night follows day, cultural conservatives have come to expect Republican election losses to be followed swiftly by charges that they are what’s keeping the party from enjoying permanent majority status.

These recriminations are always wrong, of course. Social and religious conservatives make up the base of the Republican Party. And whenever cultural issues like abortion and marriage have been featured prominently in recent elections (in 2002 and 2004, for example), the party has benefited at the ballot box.

What’s novel this year is that cultural conservatives are under fire following an election in which the Republican Party experienced its largest victory in generations. This squabbling is unfortunate, not least because it’s a distraction from the real intra-party battle within the Democratic Party.

Days after the election, a small group of bloggers, Tea Party activists, and gay conservatives released an open letter urging the new GOP leadership in Congress to focus on shrinking the size of government and to keep social issues off their agenda. “This election was not a mandate for the Republican Party,” they wrote, “nor was it a mandate to act on any social issue.”
While I agree that the economy weighed most heavily on voters’ minds, cultural issues remain important.

As I have discussed elsewhere, an Election Day poll of voters commissioned by my non-profit organization, American Values, found that 59 percent felt that “Things in America are headed in the wrong direction, and at least part of it is due to the decline of moral and family values in society.” Just 18 percent said things were headed in the wrong direction but not due to the decline in morals. Clearly morals still matter.

“When they were out in the Boston Harbor,” one of the letter’s signatories told Politico, “they weren’t arguing about who was gay or who was having an abortion.”

That’s true, but then again the British government wasn’t foisting gay marriage on its subjects or forcing them to pay for other people’s abortions. Social issues become prominent when politicians and courts began taking them out of the people’s hands by legislating from the bench and imposing their values on the public.

Do the letter’s signatories really want Republicans not to “act on any social issue?” If so, I suppose they don’t want the GOP to work for the billions of dollars in savings that would come from defunding Planned Parenthood, embryonic stem-cell research, and international “family-planning” programs.

Most Republicans understand that it’s a lack of attention to “social issues” like fatherlessness and unstable families that is most to blame for out-of-control spending on welfare and other programs. Addressing the social issues that so many libertarians would neglect is a necessary condition to restraining the size of government.

The in-coming Republican leadership in Congress realizes this. The last Republican wave election, in 1994, was defined by the Contract with America, which failed to mention values issues.

The new GOP House majority’s Pledge to America includes promises to permanently end taxpayer-funded abortion, to codify the Hyde amendment against funding of abortions abroad, and to enact conscience amendments for medical professionals who do not want to participate in abortions.

It also states, “We pledge to honor families, traditional marriage, life, and the private and faith-based organizations that form the core of our American values.”

The Politico story about the letter to GOP leaders said, “The alliance underscores many of the tensions and divisions in the freewheeling, leaderless tea party movement.” But the real intra-party battle is going on across the political aisle.

Nancy Pelosi was elected leader of House Democrats last Wednesday, defeating moderate Democrat Heath Shuler 150 to 43. But those 43 votes underscored the rising tensions within the Democratic caucus about the direction of their party.

Pelosi has been an albatross around the necks of moderate Democrats for most of the last two years. She bullied moderate Democrats into voting for deeply unpopular bills like ObamaCare and Cap-and-Tax. Even Democrats who defied Pelosi were hurt by her in campaign ads that reminded voters that she is the leader of the party.

Nearly half of the Blue Dog coalition members lost their seats on November 2nd. Come January, there will be only 24 Democrats among the 155 Southern congressmen.

Before Pelosi’s win, Shuler told The Hill that it would be “very, very difficult” to recruit House candidates for 2012 if Pelosi stays on in the House leadership. Democratic Florida Rep. Allen Boyd, who lost his re-election bid, said, “I don’t know how you recruit for some of these seats. How are you going to recruit somebody to run—a moderate, Blue Dog Democrat—to run down here? Can’t do it.”

How unpopular is Pelosi? The New Republic’s William Galston surveyed Quinnipiac University’s ongoing polling of Pelosi’s favorability numbers. He found that between February 2007 and November 2010, the share of respondents who hadn’t heard enough about Pelosi to form an opinion declined by 25 points.

Meanwhile, those with an unfavorable opinion of her climbed 24 points, during that time, from 31 percent to 55 percent. So, as Galston notes, “virtually everyone who received additional information about Pelosi over the past three and a half years reached a negative conclusion.” Unfortunately for moderate Democrats, not enough of those people are in the Democratic Congressional Caucus.

Pelosi’s supporters are framing her leadership win as a mandate to keep President Obama from compromising with congressional Republicans. “The No. 1 reason in support of Nancy Pelosi is that she will hold the White House responsible,” Rep. Tim Ryan (D–OH) told Politico after Pelosi’s victory. “Nancy Pelosi will be the only Democratic leader standing up, saying ‘no’ and planting the flag in the ground.”

That flag, of course, is the flag of unbridled liberalism.

But there are no indications so far that Pelosi will need to stand up to President Obama. He has said repeatedly that the upshot of the election was that he needs to do a better job “messaging” and “communicating” to the American people, not that he needs to reform his agenda.

Obama and Pelosi seem to have been emboldened by their Election Day drubbing. This heralds more opportunities for Republicans to win future elections, and perhaps more opportunities for clueless Republicans to rebuke social conservatives when they do.