For a certain swath of the Washington elite, 2010 was to be the year when economic issues dominated the political scene in the Republican Party. Relegated to the supporting cast, or even understudy status, were the tiresome social issues that, the elites hold, merely distract the public audience from far more important topics.
That thesis took another thumping at the polls yesterday.
Pick your state. New Hampshire was the site of a four-way Republican Senate primary featuring former state attorney general Kelly Ayotte; the Tea Party favorite and dark horse candidate Ovide Lamontagne; and the Republican establishment choice Bill Binnie. Both Ayotte and Lamontagne represent economic and social conservative ideals, to the point that the last few weeks of the primary campaign were dominated by debate over which candidate was more pro-life.
Binnie was the establishment’s dream, a self-financing candidate who outspent his competitors by a wide margin. Binnie had all the economic conservative credentials Granite State residents presumably crave, but he was stung by ads and editorials that underscored his embrace of liberal policies on abortion and same-sex marriage. The result: Ayotte narrowly led Lamontagne as this article went to print with the two social conservatives capturing nearly 76% of the primary vote.
New Hampshire is not just any state. Its primary voters will be key to the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, a place where economics and libertarian impulses are said to rule at the ballot box. On September 14, 2010, those impulses trailed the field.
In New York, Tea Party favorite and political novice Carl Paladino crushed, 62 to 38%, the better-known Rick Lazio, a former member of Congress who has previously run statewide. Lazio happens to think abortion is basically a women’s right. Paladino: “I have always believed in the inherent dignity and sanctity of all human life. I believe the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed.”
Then there’s Delaware. There the “bread-alone” Republican elite were in full battle cry against Christine O’Donnell, a flawed but doggedly determined campaigner who, along with having Tea Party support and a late endorsement from Sarah Palin, is well-known among national conservatives because of her longtime embrace of social issues.
O’Donnell handed a six-point defeat to the elite favorite, Mike Castle, the House of Representatives’ most leftish Republican. The supposedly invincible Castle was a reliable vote against every social issue concern from the right to life to the protection of man-woman marriage. Once again, the candidate who embraced both social and economic concerns triumphed over seemingly impossible odds. -- With a turnout almost double what the pundits predicted.
The message is clear: Tea Party candidates are, almost without exception, social conservatives too. The GOP elite narrative dismissing social issue concerns is a myth, and, even more important, a testable hypothesis that is being steadily disproved
The economic issues are indeed important – the top item on the public agenda by any measure. But there are many reasons why the 800-pound gorilla isn’t the dominant creature the pundits said he would be.
For one, social issues remain a 775-pound gorilla. They rank just behind the economic issues in voter importance. The Tea Party has risen on its own urgency, not because the social issues no longer inspire voters.
Moreover, voters don’t have to choose among their favorite gorillas. The vast majority of economic conservative candidates are social conservatives too, and voters are taking the trouble to examine the candidates’ complete platform. Given the chance not to choose between their priorities, voters are deciding to have their tea and cake together.
Finally, many if not most voters sense the basic unity of the principles at stake behind economic and social concerns. A shrinking public space for virtues like fidelity and thrift has done severe social damage and sparked fierce resistance.
Voters want leaders who understand that social and economic values converge at a level deeper than politics. They have heard even the most respected economists speak of free enterprise as a consumerist rather than creative enterprise. If that is true, then our economy is about feeding appetites, not improving the quality of life, about raw acquisition, not real development.
Social issues like the right to life and the health of marriage, beginning with its core definition, are also about something more than appetites. They partake of virtues that employ sacrifice and a long-term view, namely children, to improve the life of communities while building individual character. These characteristics foster physical wealth as a by-product of spiritual wealth: an abundance of good things as the result of an abundance of good habits.
Finally, social and economic conservatives are uniting around the campaigns of the Tea Party candidates precisely because of the rude treatment coming their way from the smugly “mainstream” media. The all-too-familiar charges that their movements are ignorant, extreme, and bigoted have been repeated so often they have lost their sting. With just seven weeks to remaining before Election Day, the only adjective this coalition will accept is the one the media fears most: victorious.
Frank Cannon is the president of the American Principles Project and a veteran of numerous presidential and congressional campaigns.
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