The 2012 Republican caucuses begin today with Mike Huckabee's Iowa visit, as Republicans continue the navel-gazing that inevitably comes with a loss. (Been there, done that.)
I know I'm probably the last guy who should offer the GOP advice. But consider this week's must read, Kathleen Parker's Washington Post piece provocatively headlined "Giving Up on God." No, not existential angst; political angst.
"Simply put: Armband religion is killing the Republican Party. And, the truth -- as long as we're setting ourselves free -- is that if one were to eavesdrop on private conversations among the party intelligentsia, one would hear precisely that."
Marc Ambinder analyzes: "There are two secrets, actually: one -- that the 'leaders' of the various movements within social conservatism are ill-adapted to modern politics and can exacerbate tensions between the movement and outsiders; and two--that a large part of the Republican establishment believes they can pander to these voters, not address their core concerns, and still rely on them for support."
Social conservatives are at once the GOP's greatest strength and greatest weakness. I'm not telling Republicans to abandon the social issues; that's not my place. And frankly I have a bias in wanting to win those issues and get them off the table.
As a member of the left end base of the Democratic Party, frankly, I expect to get screwed one in a while. Defunding the war, impeachment, gay marriage, Lieberman--that's an incomplete list from just this year.
In the process of endless disappointment, we've learned to choose our battles. And that's all I'm recommending: choose your battles.
On some of the social issues, conservatives are popular. Stop freaking out, Barack's not taking your gun away. You won that fight. Faith-based programs have some appeal. The school voucher fight is still a live one. (Just analyzing here, not agreeing.)
But other social issues which were winners in the 1968-2008 divide and conquer alignment of Nixon and Wallace and Atwater and Rove are losers in the long run.
Gay marriage is a generational conflict. People who came of came of age before Stonewall, when homosexuality was literally classified as a mental illness, simply didn't talk about it. That age cohort drives the slim majority that voted yes on Proposition 8--and they won't be voting in many more elections. I know the religious right sees that, and it's behind the effort to cement marriage bans into constitutions before their voters die off.
Yes, a lot of people are deeply conflicted about the morality of abortion and don't like it. But you know what they like even less? The government telling them what to do. That's a conservative impulse if anything.
And some of the niche issues of the religious right are active vote-killers now. Issues like opposition to stem cell research and the Terry Schaivo circus scare middle of the roaders away. And denial of evolution makes us look like a joke to the rest of the world. Why is Darwinism good economics but bad science?
Finally, when priests start denying people communion because they voted for Obama? That's reeeeally scary. I know it's the church doing that and not the political system, but people see it as part of the same subculture.
I don't know the Christian conservative subculture. I know OF it; sometimes I see its channels as I flip through the cable, sometimes I see incongruous ads featuring "stars" I've never heard of. I've even been trained to recognize some of the dog whistles.
What I do know is numbers, and I pity the Republican dilemma. The social conservative subculture is probably 25 or 30 percent of the country. In a winner take all electoral system, with its bipolar bias toward two parties, that's enough to control a party.
But it's not enough to win.
The Republican philosophy of self-reliance and personal freedom has deep roots in American history, as does the Democratic philosophy of "I am my brother's keeper." Libertarians, like social conservatives, are quick to leap to issues that they deeply care about but which don't have mass appeal. Ron Paul was a flawed candidate, whose message was popular in spite of himself.
But the Jeffersonian argument that government is best which governs least? A party that advocates consistent freedom in matters economic and personal? That's a Republican party I'd like to engage in a dialogue.