Talk The Talk
The president should expend political capital on social issues.


Colleen Carroll Campbell

Tensions run high in the White House before President George W. Bush delivers his State of the Union address. Speechwriters anxiously guard the rhetorical grace of their draft while gaggles of policy advisers dissect its every phrase. President Bush edits with an eagle eye, slashing redundant paragraphs here, stray bits of bureaucratese there. And all the while, from the halls of Old Executive to the Oval Office itself, debates rage about which policies belong in the speech and which belong on the cutting-room floor.

As the president and his staff rush to apply the final touches to tonight’s address, some of America’s religious and social conservatives are feeling edgy, too. Values voters are worried that their priorities may not survive the staffing process. After three months of the silent treatment on social issues, their fears may be justified.

Since his reelection, Bush has bored full steam ahead on reforms of Social Security and the tax code. Yet he has said precious little about the moral issues that voters ranked as their chief concern on Election Day, and what he has said has not inspired their confidence. The president told the Washington Post last month that he would not lobby senators for a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage because so many senators consider it unnecessary–a caveat not mentioned on the campaign trail. “Senators have made it clear that so long as [the Defense of Marriage Act] is deemed constitutional, nothing will happen,” Bush said. “I’d take their admonition seriously. . . . Until that changes, nothing will happen in the Senate.” Conservatives had barely begun to complain before Bush suggested to the New York Times last week that he plans to use his bully pulpit, not his political capital, to reduce abortions: “I think the goal ought to be to convince people to value life. But I fully understand our society is divided on the issue and that there will be abortions. That’s reality. It seems like to me my job is to convince people to make right choices in life, to understand there are alternatives to abortion, like adoption, and I will continue to do so.”

Why would a leader brave enough to push a divisive Social Security reform plan and bold enough to pledge an end to tyranny around the world appear to be backing down on the very issues that sealed his reelection? After all, the political winds are blowing in his favor: A 2004 poll from Zogby International found that 56 percent of Americans support more restrictions on abortion and believe that abortion should never be legal or legal only in cases of rape, incest, or a direct threat to the life of the mother. A majority of Americans also oppose same-sex marriage, and overwhelming majorities of red- and blue-state voters approved state bans on same-sex marriage last November. Given such strong support for the president’s positions–not to mention his own campaign promises on these issues, which accounted for much of the support he received from traditionally Democratic Catholic, Hispanic, African-American, and union voters–Bush’s sudden apparent loss of nerve is odd and unsettling.

It is also politically dangerous. Democrats like New York Senator Hillary Clinton–who said last week that abortion is a “tragic choice” that can be averted by teaching “religious and moral values” and encouraging “teenage celibacy”–are eager to fill the vacuum created by Bush’s silence. If their rhetoric on moral values becomes indistinguishable from the president’s, and he fails to make progress on restricting abortion and protecting traditional marriage, Republicans can expect trouble in 2006.

That trouble will only intensify in the years to come. A poll released last week by Public Agenda, a nonpartisan opinion-research organization, suggests that politicians who campaign on moral values without delivering results may become a vanishing breed. The poll found that Americans are less tolerant of political compromises on moral issues than they were four years ago, and the backlash against moral compromise has grown particularly pronounced among the weekly churchgoers who form the GOP base. Calling the shift “quite dramatic,” Public Agenda President Ruth A. Wooden said more Americans want “elected officials to keep their religious principles in mind when they vote on issues like abortion and gay rights.”

Despite concerns about the Iraq war, job losses, deficits, and Social Security privatization, values voters backed Bush because he stood with them on their non-negotiable moral issues. They expect more from him than commiseration; they want results. Bush and his staff should keep that in mind as they make their final edits to tonight’s speech. A president pushing controversial reforms at home and waging a controversial war abroad cannot afford to ignore the moral issues that defined his campaign, galvanized his base, and delivered his mandate.

Colleen Carroll Campbell is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a former speechwriter to President George W. Bush, and author of The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy.