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Politics & Policy

Trump and the “Social Conservative Veto”

David Frum has written a smart article for The Atlantic on Trump and his Republican enemies. You should read it. But I think he is wrong about this:

Yet here’s something that traditional ideological conservatives will want to consider: Trump rose by shoving them aside. Trump’s rise exposed the weakness of social conservatives in particular. For a third of a century, social conservatives imposed a pro-life litmus test on Republican nominees for both presidency and vice presidency. They pulled the party into confrontations over sexuality and religion that many Republican elected leaders would have preferred to avoid. And then, abruptly, poof: The social conservative veto has vanished. New York values have prevailed, with a mighty assist from Jerry Falwell Jr. and other evangelical leaders. It seems unlikely the religious right will return in anything like its awesome previous form. A visibly conscientious objector to the culture wars easily defeated candidates who elevated the defunding of Planned Parenthood to the top of their agenda. That lesson, once demonstrated, won’t soon be forgotten.

Trump has broken all the rules of politics and still won primary after primary. Yet even he has felt it necessary to say that he opposes abortion (with the same exceptions most Republican politicians support), opposes same-sex marriage, would appoint conservative judges, and would defund Planned Parenthood (even as he also says that it does some good work). On these issues he is running well to the right of where Rudolph Giuliani was when he was on top of the Republican polls in 2007. (Giuliani later concluded that his social liberalism makes him incapable of winning the nomination.) I don’t think Trump has taken these positions because he feels deeply about them. I suspect he has taken them because he believes that he can’t get away with being pro-choice even though he can get away with being against entitlement reform, free trade, and (at least retrospectively) the Iraq war. The National Right to Life Committee may prefer Ted Cruz–as well it should–but it’s the Club for Growth that’s at war with Trump. When Trump came out, briefly, for punishing women who get abortions, it was evidence that he does not know pro-lifers very well. But it was also evidence that he wants to be where he thinks they are.

Social conservatives can’t trust Trump to stick with them: But that’s just a difference of degree between Trump and other Republican politicians of the last few decades. They know that Trump does not consider their issues a high priority: But that has pretty much been the norm among Republican politicians over the years. And he hasn’t been their top candidate in the primaries: But that, too, has ample precedent in recent races. Evangelical Christians (an imperfect proxy for social conservatives, but the best one for which we have exit-poll data) generally favored Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum over Mitt Romney in 2012. The fact that Trump is not Alan Keyes does not reflect any weakening of social-conservative power within the GOP.

What it does mean is that the character issue, once a crucial one for Republicans and especially social conservatives, has disappeared. (Gingrich’s 2012 run may have been an early sign of this collapse.) I don’t think that says good things about social conservatives or the country. But when it comes to policy issues, a lesson Republican presidential hopefuls may take from Trump is that they have considerably more freedom on economic than social issues. The veto is still in force.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.