The party needs to expand, argues David Frum, a long time Republican pundit, conservative author and former speechwriter for outgoing president George W. Bush. Frum has yet to say that his party should drop social conservatives completely, but in his book Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again, Frum does argue that the pro-life movement has gone as far as it can in restricting abortion without turning voters off and that opposing the therapeutic cloning of embryos for stem cell research is a losing cause.
This week it was announced that Frum is leaving the conservative movement’s flagship publication, National Review. Is there a coming split between Republicans and social conservatives as well?
The Republican Party has not always been a pro-life party, just as Democrats have not always been the pro-abortion party. Around the time of Roe v. Wade, it was much more mixed up than it is today, and even today, neither party is homogenous in its views on questions about life.
As Richard Land, a leader in the Southern Baptist Convention has recalled, neither party was pro-life in the mid-70s, when the Democrats rebuffed entreaties from pro-life Catholics and Southern Baptists that had supported them in the past; the move was on to turn the Republicans into a pro-life party. History would prove that, for the most part, the campaign was successful, so why change now?
P.J. O’Rourke writes in The Weekly Standard that “If the citizenry insists that abortion remain legal–and, in a passive and conflicted way, the citizenry seems to be doing so–then give the issue a rest.” He goes on to argue that activists should be focused on making sure government does not pay for abortions in country or overseas, that they should work on parental consent laws and laws aimed at curbing the timing of abortion rather than seeking to ban abortion altogether. O’Rourke it seems, is living in another land, maybe Canada, but even I can see from up here in the Great White North, that what he is calling for is exactly what activists have been doing for the last number of years.
Ronald Reagan built a coalition on what he called the three legs of the American conservative movement; fiscal conservatism, social conservatism and defense conservatives. What O’Rourke and Frum appearing to be calling for is cutting off one of those legs, or at least hiding it from view and telling supporters to shut up.
What these writers and others in the Republican Party need to remember is that the 2008 presidential election turned on the economy. In the final weeks of the election, an economy threatening to boil over since the summer of 2007, finally did just that. People were worried about their jobs, their savings and their homes. Had President Bush and Republicans in Congress stuck to conservative values on fiscal issues and kept the books balanced instead of ratcheting up ever greater deficits, then perhaps the American people would have felt more comfortable turning to Republicans when the economy soured.
David Frum is worried that when times are tough, Americans feel their wallets are safe with the Democrats. He should be worried, having your opponent steal voters on one of your key issues is bad for any party, but Frum looks at the problem and draws the wrong conclusions.
According to exit poll data posted by Steve Waldman, Editor of Beliefnet.com, John McCain carried the majority of both Catholics and Protestants who attend church weekly, just as George Bush did in 2004, albeit with slightly smaller numbers than Bush. These are the very people most likely to care about family and life issues. If you are losing voters to your opponent on one of your key issues, the handling of the economy, why switch to your opponent’s position on another key issue; it would be like handing them the next election.
G. Tracy Mehan makes this point over at The American Spectator, “If economic or business conservatives thinks they can win Midwestern, western, Southern and border states without Evangelicals, Southern Baptists, culturally conservative Catholics and advocates for the nuclear family as the first of all social institutions, they are kidding themselves. President Gerald Ford's primary victory over Ronald Reagan in 1976 was the last gasp of that worldview. You do not find many political volunteers, or voters, at the Union League or Bogey Clubs.”
Republicans lost this past election because they strayed from core principles; they abandoned fiscal prudence and they embraced big government programs such as No Child Left Behind. To win again, Peggy Noonan, another writer and former presidential speechwriter, says Republicans need to return to core principles, even core texts such as those of Edmund Burke or Russell Kirk.
David Frum is right on some points; he argues that you cannot win by repeating the campaigns of the past; time and circumstance change. He argues that there has to be a Republican or conservative embrace of environmentalism, a point argued best perhaps by author and columnist Rod Dreher in his book Crunchy Con. Finally, Frum argues that Republicans need to come up with their own market based health care reform and stop carrying the bag of HMOs and insurance companies.
Conservatives should not be adverse to change; in fact, from Edmund Burke to Russell Kirk, serious conservatives have called for a union of permanence and change. In his Ten Conservative Principles, Kirk compares change to renewal in a human body; he says change must be regular but that the change must also follow a certain path, “harmonizing with the form and nature of that body; otherwise change produces a monstrous growth, a cancer, which devours its host.”
For the past 30 years, Republicans have been attracting voters concerned with the sanctity of human life, the shared moral values of their nation. Now it seems some party stalwarts want to change that. The proposals that these Republicans suggest sound less like the change of renewal that will reinvigorate their party and more like the cancer Russell Kirk warns of.
Brian Lilley is Ottawa Bureau Chief for 1010 CFRB Toronto and CJAD 800 Montreal. He is also Associate Editor of Mercatornet.com