Left Behind

Social conservatives are getting awfully worried about this new push in the Republican Party to modernize, sideline the knuckle-draggers who can't help but offer their opinions on the functioning of ladyparts, show minorities that they don't hate them, and find a way to appeal to young people. So how can they respond? The most obvious way is to do what they do after every Republican loss, which is to tell the party's leadership that a) we lost the last election because you didn't listen to us; and b) if you don't start paying us sufficient deference, we'll abandon the GOP. As everybody knows, it's a threat they never follow through on and never will, but the obviously feel like they have no choice but to make it. So all the usual religious right suspects—Gary Bauer, James Dobson, Tony Perkins, Phyllis Schlafly, Lou Sheldon—who have been playing this game at least since the 1980s, sent a letter to RNC chairman Reince Priebus warning him not to abandon them. As tired as this ritual may be, this time the threat to the religious right is much more serious than in the past, and you can sense their fear.

Complaining that the GOP's "autopsy" document said that the party's position on gay rights is hurting them with young people, the authors of the letter write, "Many homosexuals are active in the GOP because they agree with Republicans on economic issues. The fact that the Party is strongly committed to traditional marriage has not prevented their involvement through GOProud or Log Cabin Republicans. We deeply resent the insinuation that we have treated homosexuals unkindly personally." They resent it so deeply, in fact, that they put that sentence in bold. I don't know what specific insinuation they're talking about, but I have no doubt this is sincere. I'm sure that when Lou Sheldon writes about widening acceptance of gay people in American culture, "This is the crisis of our time. It's the very face of evil," he bears no personal ill will toward anyone. Or when Tony Perkins says, "Even if society embraced homosexuality, there would never be that sense of self-fulfillment because it's outside of the way God created man and woman, and that's the bottom line," he'd tell you he hates the sin, not the sinner. Yes, the rest of us find that ridiculous, but I have no doubt that they're puzzled as to why gay people or anyone else might be offended, so long as they speak in a polite tone when they say those things. My favorite part of the letter is when they say, "Alleged gaffes by candidates in 2012 on social issues could have been avoided if Party leadership had consulted us, the experts on how to articulate those positions."

The GOP leadership gets it, though. As I've mentioned in the past, those establishment Republicans in Washington never felt all that enthusiastic about the issues that animate the grassroots. If you could read the mind of everyone at the Heritage Foundation or the American Enterprise Institute, you'd probably find their commitment to outlawing abortion and excluding gay people from marriage to be shaky at best. They signed on with that agenda, but the issues they care most deeply about are the economic ones, like taxes and regulation. Those social issues are good for getting the troops out working and voting, but there's only so much energy they'll devote to them once they get power.

What's different now is that instead of either working to the GOP's advantage or being basically a wash, some of those social issues are now actively hurting them. The answer from the leadership, and this is what the social conservatives object to, is that they should just put that stuff on the back burner. There's a problem, though. The "Let me tell you about the 80 percent of things we agree on" strategy is fine, but it depends on who you're talking to and what the 20 percent is. There are some issues that, for some people, stand in for an entire worldview and cultural identity. For instance, in some places, guns are that issue. If I tell you I'm a rock-ribbed Republican except for the fact I want strong restrictions on gun ownership, some people will decide that I'm just not their kind of person and they can't trust me. And for the young people Republicans are trying to figure out how to appeal to, gay rights may become that kind of issue as well. Whatever else you tell them, if you say you want hold on to "traditional" marriage, they'll conclude you just aren't their kind of person. That one issue will represent something larger about who you are and how you see the world, and when you try to tell them that health savings accounts are a good deal for healthy young people like them, they'll say, "Maybe, but I just can't get past what you said about gay people."

There's no easy way for the Republican party to deal with that problem, short of just changing its position on the issue. They will do that eventually, but not for a while yet. In the meantime, there isn't much they can do, other than trying to change the subject. I'm pretty sure, though, that listening to the likes of James Dobson and Phyllis Schlafly more than they already do would probably not be their best move.

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