Politics & Policy

Scapegoating the So-Cons

They're not what's killing the GOP.

What ails the GOP? There are as many answers as there are pundits. But there’s always one narrative that news reporters and certain establishment GOP consultants love to give, again and again.

Social conservatives, this story goes, have come to dominate the Republican party with their defense of the right to life and resistance to same-sex marriage. This sort of backward thinking has caused the party to lose support nationwide, and particularly among its traditional base of high-income earners.

This narrative is now being repeated as social conservatives debate whom to support in the Republican primary –the debate is particularly important because Rudy Giuliani threatens to become the first avowedly pro-abortion Republican presidential nominee of our era. That so-cons reject Giuliani has become the latest strike against them. David Yepsen, celebrated political columnist for the Des Moines Register), refers to the so-cons as “zealots” whose opposition to Giuliani is proof they believe the party is “substitute for a church.” Yepsen pronounces that “a defeat of party social conservatives will have to happen before a new generation of GOP moderates can rise again.”

John Harwood’s Friday article in the Wall Street Journal points to a more tangible phenomenon along these lines: A new survey indicates that only 42-percent of voters with incomes above $100,000 are now backing Republicans — a striking change from 2004, when 58-percent did so. As exhibit A for this trend, Harwood offers Jim Kelley, a wealthy private equity entrepreneur who writes checks to Barack Obama and “criticizes Republican stands on ‘so-called moral issues’ such as gay marriage.” Harwood quotes former Bob Dole campaign manager Scott Reed, who gives as one reason for Republicans’ current woes “a sense that the leadership of the Republican Party is too beholden to a small group of self-appointed social conservative leaders.”

There are, and have been, Jim Kelleys out there for many years — rich people who disdain social-conservative voters and activists. Yet the “blame-the-so-cons” narrative is a dubious explanation for the Republican party’s slide among both the well-to-do and the rest of the nation’s voters. The theory, often presented as fact, fails to withstand even the most basic questions.

The first question is whether so-cons have radically changed the Republican party in recent years as some allege, thus engendering newfound disdain. A quick glance at the Republican presidential field at least throws the idea into question. Its frontrunners include a candidate who is firmly pro-choice on abortion, and another who held an identical view until very recently.

More importantly, however, one would be hard-pressed to identify just how the Republican commitment on social issues has changed since 2004, or even since Republicans captured control of Congress in 1994. At that earlier time, many House Republicans were clamoring to cut off subsidies to Planned Parenthood, and in the following years they passed various abortion restrictions (many of them vetoed) and banned same-sex marriage. In 2004, 58-percent of high earners backed the GOP amidst vigorous political campaigns on judges and same-sex marriage. The point is that wealthy, social-liberal Republicans have no additional reasons to despise so-cons today, than they did before.

The second question is whether social conservatism has caused Republicans to lose elections. Here again, the evidence appears to hold the so-cons harmless. Republicans lost 30 House seats in 2006, and it is striking both how Democrats managed to minimize the impact of social issues, and how social liberals made up a disproportionately large number of the Republican casualties.

Of the 23 Republican House incumbents to lose in 2006, ten had voted to fund embryonic-stem-cell research. Eight of these were consistently pro-choice on abortion, (including former Iowa Rep. Jim Leach, whose defeat Yepsen completely ignores as he denounces so-cons as backward knuckle draggers). Eight of the Republican losers voted “no” on the Federal Marriage Amendment in July of 2006.

Five other incumbents — in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Indiana — lost their seats to Democrats who consciously positioned themselves as pro-lifers. Add in four additional losses due to ethics concerns, and you’ve accounted for 19, or nearly two-thirds of the Republican losses in the House, that definitely cannot be blamed on so-cons. In the other 11 GOP losses, it is debatable how large a role social conservatism played. (Social conservatives also gained two other seats in primaries last year, one in each party.)

If so-cons are not the reason for the Republican disaster of 2006, and they have not suddenly and radically changed the GOP, why do so many continue to offer them up as the Republican party’s main problem? Part of the reason is that reporters are willing to listen to this “blame-the-so-cons” narrative because it jives with their own thinking. If conservatives are already rare in the media, social conservatives are even rarer.

Among Republicans on Capitol Hill — particularly the young, social-liberal career builders who have been gradually replacing the old guard of the 1994 revolution — there is a strong desire to scapegoat so-cons for problems that all Republicans helped create. But what serious account of GOP woes can fail to finger the Iraq war, the three Republican members of Congress who recently left for rehab or prison, and the fact that two more Republican congressmen are likely to do time in the near future?

That sounds like a much more promising starting point than the determination among some to scapegoat the so-cons — who, after all, turned the Republican party into a viable national majority after Democrats lost them with “acid, amnesty, and abortion.”

– David Freddoso is an NRO political reporter.

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