America elected a new Democratic President with more than 360 electoral votes. Liberals streamed to power, leaving the conservatives downcast. The Republican Party extended long knives for social conservatives, blaming them for the sorry state of affairs in the Republican Party. “Their issues need to be pushed to the back burner” was the hue and cry of the party leadership.
Sound like 2008? Actually, I’m talking about 1992.
In 2008, social conservatives find themselves once again the proverbial scapegoat for a failed George Bush Presidency. However, let’s not confuse people with the facts.
In 1992, the Religious Right did not make George H.W. Bush break his “Read my Lips” pledge. They didn’t cause the S&L scandal, or a recession.
Similarly in this term, the Religious Conservative movement didn’t cause an incompetent response to Katrina. While they did support the war in Iraq and back up national security conservatives in going into that country, and maintain solid support for our troops after the fact, they were not responsible for the bungled Pre-Surge strategy. Nor did they make Duke Cunningham take bribes or Mark Foley send creepy e-mails to minors.
Of course, the attacks in both 1992 and 2008 amount to little more than self-serving efforts by party leaders to deflect from their own miserable failures by blaming someone else. This is somewhat ironic, given the support nearly every Republican professes for personal responsibility.
Some argue that George H.W. Bush lost because Pat Buchanan made a controversial speech three months before the election. This is cited as an explanation for why Bush Sr. got a lower percentage of the vote than Herbert Hoover did in 1932. Let’s forget little things like the state of the economy, the broken promises, and the fact that he struggled with “the vision thing.”
Religious Conservatives didn’t cause McCain’s downfall. They didn’t cause him to take an unprecedented three month gap between closing the deal on the GOP nomination and Obama winning the Democratic nomination and spend it flailing around aimlessly rather than presenting a compelling message to America.
Those who argue for de-emphasizing social conservatism, or moving away from these issues entirely, as a solution are showing they don’t even really understand what the problem is. They also are ignoring history.
After the 1994 Republican Victory, which was brought to Republicans in large part by the good work of the NRA and the Christian Coalition, the idea of a need to move away from Social Conservatism was tossed around quite a bit. There was even a move to strip the Republican Party of its pro-life platform that was advocated by some establishment leaders as a way to build the party. That was a bridge too far even for the Christian Coalition leader and future Abramoff scandal figure Ralph Reed and the plank stayed in.
However, the 1996 Republican ticket used the exact same strategy that some people are calling for today. The 1996 Republican Nominee, Bob Dole, had almost nothing to say about abortion, and effectively nothing after he crushed Pat Buchanan in the South Carolina primary. He left the door open to choosing a pro-Choice running mate until the day before the convention when he settled on Jack Kemp, who, while pro-life, was a fiscal conservative first and foremost.
Dole/Kemp, at their 1996 convention, avoided the “mistake” of the Bush ticket, which had staged a “Family Values night” with speeches from social conservative luminaries. I remember perusing the agenda of the 1996 convention and finding it was dominated almost entirely by moderates. Headliners included such moderates as Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush, Colin Powell, Kay Bailey Hutchinson, and George Pataki. The keynote address was delivered by pro-Choice New York Congresswoman Susan Molinari. If a move to the center and away from social issues was going to produce a win, this was the way to do it.
But, it didn’t work. Dole’s campaign was a disaster. The 73-year old lost by nine points. Exit polls showed a smaller than usual turnout among religious conservatives.
My parents didn’t back Senator Dole, but opted for a conservative third party. They hadn’t voted in decades previously, but in 1992 after the GOP’s Family Values night, they went and registered to vote and cast their votes for Bush/Quayle, and carried literature for National Right to Life in 1992 and the Christian Coalition in 1994. 1996 represents an object lesson that you can’t take peoples’ vote for granted.
In the aftermath of another Presidential defeat, the failed blame and scapegoating game played by the Republican establishment that launched Bob Dole to defeat is at work once again, declaring war on a vital part of the Republican base. Will we learn from history’s errors, or will we, like fools, repeat them?