How Republicans can become 'compassionate conservatives' again

Republicans are engaging in what has become their perennial post-election pastime: blaming their electoral defeats on social issues. If the party doesn’t moderate on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, Republican analysts endlessly advise, it will risk alienating voters and losing the future.

I agree that substantive changes need to be made. But I couldn’t disagree more with the idea that the GOP’s support for the sanctity of life and traditional marriage has been its undoing.

One thing everyone seems to agree on is that Republicans face a perceived compassion deficit. Mitt Romney bested Barack Obama in exit poll questions asking voters which candidate “shares my values” and which would be a better steward of the economy.


But Romney lost the empathy vote. Most voters just didn’t think Romney cared about people like them, and it probably cost him the election. But some Republicans are learning the wrong lessons from that sobering truth.

More On This...

    Immediately after the election, Senator John McCain advised Republicans to “leave the abortion issue alone,” and, in a debate with me on CNN, former Governor Jon Huntsman said Republicans should “stop moralizing to people.”

    Last week the Republican National Committee released a 98-page “post-mortem” on how the party can rebuild. It made no mention of values voters, the sanctity of life, marriage or religious freedom. These omissions are being interpreted as proof of a Republican shift away from social issues.

    Then several conservative office holders and pundits called for the party to “moderate” on life and same-sex marriage. Rob Portman became the first Republican senator to publicly support same-sex marriage.

    At CPAC, the annual conservative confab, analyst Dick Morris and libertarian author Charles Murray advised the GOP to abandon opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion. Their comments sounded a lot like former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels’ suggestion two years ago of a GOP “truce” on social issues.

    The truth is Republicans would lose many more voters than they’d gain by abandoning these issues. Faith-based voters make up the party’s base, and they are overwhelming pro-life and pro-traditional marriage.

    Morris was right when he said that single women vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. But it’s a fantasy to think they’ll embrace the GOP if the party abandons its pro-life position. It’s akin to believing that Hispanics will suddenly bolt for the Republican Party if it comes out for immigration amnesty.

    What’s the best way to get single women to vote Republican, other than hoping they marry (Romney won married women by seven points)? Explain to them how Republican support for lower taxes, safer streets and a kinder gentler culture is good for women and children.

    Leave it to Republican elites to advise abandoning a position at its peak support. Polls over the last two years have found that the country is more pro-life than it’s been in decades. Last May Gallup put the pro-life/pro-choice split at 50%-41%, including 47%-41% among self-identified independents. Interestingly, Gallup has also found that women are more likely than men to call themselves “pro-life.”

    Too many Republican advisors concluded from the election that defending the pro-life position means suffering the same fate as Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, who made the mistake of getting drawn into a debate about rape and abortion.

    But according to one poll, just 13% of voters felt Akin’s comments reflected the GOP’s view. This included less than a quarter of Democrats. Akin is a convenient scapegoat for Republicans who want to move leftward on abortion. But in truth his comments hurt him and no one else.

    If Republicans are aiming for the heart, for compassion, the last thing they should do is abandon the sanctity of life. Instead, they should tell Americans that they believe in the dignity and value of every human being, from the defenseless unborn child, to the newborn with a disability, to the 90-year-old dealing with dementia.

    It is true that Romney and the Republicans’ perceived lack of compassion played a role in the last election. But it was on fiscal issues, including tax cuts for the wealthy, not on social issues, where the compassion deficit was felt.

    This is not to say the Democrats’ “war on women” rhetoric didn’t take a toll. But to the extent that it hurt Republicans, it was mainly because the Democrats’ charge too often went unchallenged, not only by the media but also by Republican candidates who became mortified at the idea of having to talk about the issue.

    Romney and other Republican candidates rarely corrected Democrats’ constant mischaracterizations of the Obamacare birth control mandate debate. Much of the public was left with the perception that Republicans wanted to outlaw contraception, not that they supported religious employers’ constitutional right not to be forced to fund their employees birth control and chemical abortions.

    And what about President Obama’s position on abortion?

    His view that all abortions should be allowed for any reason and that taxpayers should pay for abortions women cannot afford is shared by only a tiny fraction of the public. But Republicans rarely even tried to raise the issue.

    They would much rather spend political capital convincing middle America that taxes should not go up on billionaires than they would talking to them about how destroying innocent children is an affront to American values.

    Current calls for Republican moderation on social issues are being portrayed as proof of the rise of a more libertarian Republican Party. That’s ironic because the just-leave-me-alone ethos of libertarianism is in direct conflict with the consensus that Republicans need to be more compassionate.

    If Republicans want to be seen as more compassionate, they should continue to stand proudly for the sanctify of life and marriage. And they should do so without apologizing. When it comes to social issues, Republicans don’t just need to be more empathetic. They also need to be more emphatic in explaining to voters what they believe, and why.