The coalition Ronald Reagan assembled of fiscal and economic conservatives, evangelicals, and national-security advocates has always been dominated by the social issues at the grassroots level. While free-market economic conservatives lived in New York and dutifully attended their Club for Growth meetings and national-security types inhabited Washington, the Republican social conservatives dominated the grassroots of the party. They alone could turn out the numbers to rallies and to the polls on primary or Election Day.
Now, all that has changed. It is the fiscal conservatives and free-market supporters who own the Republican streets. Through the Tea Party, they have come to dominate the grassroots of the GOP. It is as if an invisible primary were held for supremacy at the grassroots and the Tea Party won.
And social issues are nowhere on the Tea Party agenda. I recently participated in a conference call with tea-party affiliates throughout the country. During the question period that followed my speech, one leader of a local tea-party group asked a question about abortion. The conference-call leader jumped in before I could answer and ruled the query out of order. “Our priorities are to oppose taxes, support fiscal conservatism, and advance free-market principles,” she scolded the questioner. “We do not take a position on social issues like abortion,” she added.
Along with this change has come a shift in what it takes to turn the litmus paper red enough to win Republican primaries. It used to be that abortion, gun control, and gay marriage were the hot-button issues, and anyone straying from orthodoxy was targeted in the primary and handicapped in the general election by a lackluster turnout. Now, a candidate’s social positions rarely even come up. It is fiscal and economic purity that rules the day. Anyone who voted for cap-and-trade is targeted in the primary. And there is no place for a candidate who ever backed a tax increase. Every candidate has to sign the no-tax pledge that Grover Norquist formulated for Americans for Tax Reform.
Where Republican politicians were once terrified to move to the left on social issues, they are now more frightened of retribution for departures from fiscal orthodoxy. The once-elitist demands of the Club for Growth are now echoed throughout America by the surging Tea Party movement.
A recent Wall Street Journal poll found that 71 percent of all Republicans regarded themselves as Tea Party supporters, far more than would identify themselves as pro-life or opposed to gay marriage.
This shift in Republican priorities is opening up the way for social moderates and libertarians to back Republican candidates in the 2010 elections. The libertarian strain in the American electorate has long been neglected by the mainstream media. But, through the Tea Party, it has gained ascendancy on the right. Those who want the government to stay out of both boardrooms and bedrooms have come to dominate the party and its nominating process.
Ironically, this change in the Republican grassroots has come at a time when abortion is falling into disrepute and larger numbers of Americans report themselves as being pro-life. This swing of voter sentiment might reflect the growth of the evangelical community of believers or simply the aging of the baby-boomer population. But even as the right to lifers move toward a national majority, their clout at the grassroots level of the Republican party is waning.
But despite this growing support for pro-life policies, no Republican candidate is basing his or her insurgency against an incumbent Democratic congressman, senator, or governor on social issues. There are no ads urging the ouster of a Democrat for his pro-choice policies or backing of gay marriage. All the ads and the rhetoric are devoted to fiscal transgressions like support of the stimulus package, the TARP bailout, or Obamacare.
The failure of presidential candidate Mike Huckabee to win the GOP nomination in 2008 was, in retrospect, a harbinger of this grassroots shift. Governor Huckabee starred in the Republican debates with his witty sallies against big government and his commonsense folk wisdom. He capitalized on this strong performance to build mighty field organizations in Iowa and other early primary states. He looked like a real contender.
But the attacks on his spending programs in Arkansas by the Club for Growth — often inaccurate or exaggerated — undermined his ability to reach beyond the confines of the evangelical ghetto and doomed his candidacy to a regional one. He won state after state in the South but had trouble making inroads in the northeast. (If Huckabee runs again in 2012, it will be interested to see how his hosting of a weekend show on Fox News will affect his standing.)
But the Tea Party has flourished in all regions, drawing libertarians in the North and evangelicals in the South, all committed to its agenda of reduced spending, limited taxation, balanced budgets, and free-market economics. It is the new mantra of the Republican grassroots and has a lot to do with the massive gains the party will win on November 2.