Last summer, Indiana governor Mitch Daniels called for a “truce” on social issues like abortion and gay marriage. After the first political debate of 2011, it now seems far more likely — and logical — that there will be a truce on truces.
Last Monday, January 3, in a packed ballroom at the National Press Club, a debate was held for the candidates for the RNC chairmanship. I was fortunate enough to be involved in these proceedings, only the second of their kind in the history of Republican party politics, and my role permitted me to pre-interview each of the five candidates, including the incumbent, Michael Steele. I was also able to present two questions at the live debate, on whether the right to life and defense of traditional marriage are central to the GOP’s issue commitments.
The debate was completely devoid of the kind of fireworks that political commentators love. As SBA List and National Organization for Marriage Skype pre-interviews had suggested, each of the five candidates affirmed without hesitation their determination to support the Republican platform’s social-issue stands and to honor that support in the party’s programs, from recruiting candidates to buying ads to micro-targeting votes.
The aura of unity sorely exasperated professional cynics like the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, who fumed for his readers, “The candidates were nearly dissent-free. Abortion? All opposed. Lower taxes? All in favor. Gay marriage? All opposed. Cutting spending? All in favor.” Jon Stewart found comedy in the comity.
Far from being a dull affair, however, the debate proved that the 2011 GOP has an unshakable core — and this core exercises real influence over the expressed convictions of the GOP’s national leaders. After all, only two short years ago, current RNC chairman Michael Steele — who was a board member of the pro-choice Republican Leadership Council — told GQ magazine that he believed abortion was an “individual choice.” Maria Cino, one of the four leading challengers he faced this week, served on the board of WISH List, a political action committee devoted solely to electing pro-choice Republican women.
At the debate, both Steele and Cino expressed profound pro-life conviction and commitment.
This reassurance was and is necessary as voting day, this Friday, approaches. The candidates to head the RNC are not running for public office or Washington Post endorsements — their electorate is the leadership of state and territorial Republican parties, the committee men and women who are most in touch with the thinking of the GOP grassroots. If the candidates’ pro-life convictions go this deep, the national grassroots must be overwhelmingly so.
This message can’t and won’t be lost on potential presidential nominees like Daniels and Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, who similarly mused last September that Republican candidates should focus on the economy and issues “people care about” rather than “run down rabbit trails” on social questions.
Governor Daniels, for his own part, made another attempt just after Christmas to explain away his “truce talk,” saying that his message was not directed at social conservatives but at the people “aggressively trying to change the definition of marriage.” His advice to the liberal activists: “Stand down for awhile” so the country can focus on its deepening fiscal crisis.
All of this is progress — and rapid progress at that. It’s also recognition that the conservative resurgence this past November involved a confluence, and not a divergence, of the social, fiscal, and national-security streams within the GOP. One week into the two-year cycle that leads to the reelection or defeat of Barack Obama, the GOP truce on internal disunity is turning out to be the one that really counts.
— Marjorie Dannenfelser is president of the Susan B. Anthony List.