After this weekend's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), it's clear that social conservatism is still in the driver's seat of the Republican Party.
Given the recent rash of draconian anti-abortion legislation and state-based attempts to roll back gay rights, you can be forgiven if you don't see this as news. But last year, it was common -- among pundits, at least -- to assert that this was a new kind of conservative movement. The Tea Party was most vocal about fiscal issues, and the Republican Party was consumed with demonizing the president's economic agenda: Stimulus, bailouts and health care were the enemies; gay rights and abortion were an afterthought. Values were out, and concern for government spending was in.
Of course, anyone paying attention could see that social conservatism remained a key component of the right's agenda. Last fall, at the Values Voter Conference, a steady stream of movement luminaries emphasized the importance of social issues. Mike Huckabee argued that the "economic crisis is not a fiscal crisis; it is a family crisis" and that "the breakdown of Wall Street was not a money crisis; it was a moral crisis." Rep. Mike Pence earned his biggest applause when he declared, "We will not restore this nation with public policy alone; it will require public virtue." And former Sen. Rick Santorum had this to say: "The idea that the basic moral values of our country are not part of an integrated set of issues that keep our country safe and prosperous is a very dangerous idea." Obviously, the Values Voter Conference was a place to talk about "values," but it stands out because each speaker explicitly connected values talk to the Tea Party and the conservative resurgence.
These words were repeated at CPAC. Between warnings of impending tyranny, and tales of an America gone wrong -- "I view the passage of this [health care] bill as the greatest assault on freedom in my lifetime," said freshman senator Ron Johnson -- there were paeans to traditional values and commitments to defending them. Santorum, who reprised his values-talk at CPAC, gave a well-received speech peppered with lines like "America is a great moral enterprise" and "The social issues, those are the issues that matter ... those are the issues we cannot retreat on." Tim Pawlenty, a former Minnesota governor turned right-wing crusader, was equally vocal: "One of the most important things we should always remember is the motto of our country, 'In God We Trust.' And we should stand on that foundation as our [Founding] Fathers intended." Even Paul Ryan, the GOP poster boy for fiscal responsibility, jumped in: "Economic conservatism and social conservatism come from the same place. You can't give up one for the other."
Indeed, between individual speakers, there were well-attended panels on "values" issues. At "How Political Correctness is Harming America's Military," social conservatives bemoaned the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" and Obama's endorsement of openly gay soldiers. At "Traditional Marriage and Society," religious conservatives from CitizenLink (formerly Focus on the Family) pledged to defend heterosexual marriage: "We need to defend marriage ... because traditional marriage is a cornerstone of our country."
As of today, Republicans on the state-level had introduced bills that would practically ban abortion entirely. On the national level, House Republicans have introduced legislation to ban gay marriage in Washington D.C., defund Planned Parenthood, enshrine the Hyde Amendment, redefine rape, and allow hospitals to deny life-saving care to pregnant women if it harms the fetus or requires an abortion. These bills have the strong support of the Tea Party and represent the socially conservative interests of their constituents.
Those socially conservative voters have been with the Tea Party all along, of course. In a survey released last October, the Public Religion Research Institute found that 47 percent of self-identified Tea Party supporters are also Christian conservatives, and 36 percent are white evangelicals. Sixty-three percent say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, and only 18 percent say that gay and lesbian couples should be allowed to marry.
The truth is, there is very little daylight between social conservatives and this new crop of Tea Party Republicans; both are willing soldiers in the culture war. "We believe in the dignity of life, the stability and strength of the family, of self sufficiency," said Santorum, in is speech, "That's what makes America the greatest country in the world, the social issues." As the presidential race heats up, and the conservative base grows more motivated, we should expect to hear more of this values-talk from the Republicans who would be president.