"Republican leaders urge candidate truce on social issues” was the headline in the Washington Examiner. “Republicans retreat on gay marriage” said another in Politico. The accompanying articles, while in some respects tendentious and a bit misleading, are accurate in relaying a mindset widely shared by GOP elites.

Such elites believe social issues are mostly harmful to Republican presidential candidates running in general elections. They believe this to be especially true when economic issues have moved to the forefront of voter concern and national debate. Accordingly, they were anxious for the nomination battle, and the candidacy of militant social conservative Rick Santorum, to be over. Now that Santorum has departed the race, they expect that prospective nominee Mitt Romney will be able to direct most of his attention to the economic debate, in which the main hope for Republican victory supposedly resides.

That the economic debate is unavoidable in 2012 is beyond dispute. But not all aspects of it favor Republicans.

The economic issue as it presents itself this year can be thought of as a five-year narrative divided into three parts: the beginning (2007-09), the middle (2009-11), and the present (late 2011 to Election Day, November 6, 2012).

Only the middle period—the stagnant recovery, accompanied by the unsuccessful Obama stimulus package—can be seen as an unalloyed Republican asset. The height of this phase coincided with the Republican landslide in the 2010 elections.

The first period—the triggering of the financial crisis followed by the 2007-09 recession—has consistently been regarded by a plurality of voters as a negative for President George W. Bush and for Republicans, who still get most of the blame for the origin of the crisis. Certainly the height of the financial crisis—the announcement of the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers on September 15, 2008—was a decisive turning point in presidential polling in the race between Barack Obama and John McCain. A narrow McCain edge in early September quickly turned into a significant Obama lead he was never to relinquish.

The third and current period has more than six months remaining, and is thus by definition unresolved. But so far it has been characterized by slightly improved private-sector job growth, mild declines in the unemployment rate, a bull market in stocks, and an upward spike in petroleum and gasoline prices. The first three tend to favor Obama and the Democrats, while the fourth is an asset for Republicans.

As to the three favorable current trends, it is in theory possible that voters might give some credit to congressional Republicans, who, though frustrated in their larger aspirations, have had some success in curbing the 2008-10 federal spending spree, as well as heading off Democratic-backed tax increases. But overwhelmingly negative voter sentiments on the performance of Congress in general, and congressional Republicans in particular, suggest this will prove a hard sell. Rightly or wrongly, the president’s relentless campaign to blame congressional Republicans for Washington gridlock appears to have met with considerable success.

So of the three phases of the economic situation that current voters find relevant, one favors the Democrats, one the Republicans, and the third is undecided with perhaps a mild Democratic edge. Assuming recent trends stay more or less intact, this does not necessarily portend a November slam dunk for Republicans. Indeed, a Gallup Poll last week showed 50 percent of Americans have a “great deal/fair amount” of confidence that Obama will do the “right thing for the economy.” Only 42 percent said the same for Romney.

How have Republican presidential nominees done on economic issues in immediate past cycles? Here, too, we find a mixed bag.

In 2008, the network-financed exit poll offered “Economy” as one of five options for the “most important issue” in the voters’ presidential choice. Sixty-three percent chose “Economy,” among whom Obama prevailed over McCain 53-44 percent, a bit better than his overall 53-46 percent popular-vote margin.

In the previous three presidential elections, 1996 through 2004, the network exit poll offered a category it called “Economy/Jobs,” but also included other choices that many if not most would view as economy-centered issues, such as (all three times) “Taxes” and, in 1996, “Federal Deficit.”

On “Economy/Jobs,” Democratic nominees Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and John Kerry prevailed 61-27 percent, 59-37 percent, and 80-18 percent, respectively. In all three elections, around a fifth of voters chose “Economy/Jobs” as their most important issue (21, 18, and 20 percent).

In 1996 and 2000, this strong Democratic advantage was significantly offset by Republican leads among voters who chose “Taxes.” In 1996, the 11 percent of all voters choosing “Taxes” favored Dole over Clinton 73-19 percent. In 2000, 14 percent of voters made this choice, and they favored Bush over Gore 80-17 percent. Dole in 1996 and Bush in 2000 offered specific tax cut proposals as centerpieces of their campaigns.

In 2004, with two Bush tax cuts approved by Congress and having taken effect, only 5 percent of voters chose “Taxes” as their leading issue. Bush carried these voters over Kerry, 57-43 percent, not nearly enough to overcome Kerry’s overwhelming advantage among the 20 percent who chose “Economy/Jobs.”

In fact, 2004 was the year when, for the first time since 1988, social issues came to the forefront of a presidential election. As in 1988, they proved critical to GOP presidential success. In 2004 they mainly took the form of a controversy over judicial imposition of same-sex marriage, beginning in Massachusetts but showing strong signs of spreading nationwide. The 22 percent of voters who that year chose “Moral Values” as their top motivator went for Bush by a margin of 80-18 percent—an advantage that more than offset his net deficit in all the other issues tested by the exit poll combined.

There are several takeaways from this history as it relates to the present political landscape.

n The idea that Democrats sweep the field whenever social issues emerge is a myth.

n Republican presidential nominees do better with economic issues when they have a future-oriented agenda, usually, since the Reagan era, built around specific tax cut proposals.

n A future-oriented economic debate is even more urgently needed, given the trend in the economic narrative’s third phase toward more favorable results for the president and his fellow Democrats.

n Going back to Andrew Jackson’s crusade against the Second Bank of the United States, there has often been a moral component in the American economic debate. In the Obama years, marked by the phenomenon of the Tea Party, this moral dimension is on the rise.

In pursuit of an economic issue strategy, Republicans have a decision to make that is both substantive and stylistic: a choice between a technocratic, utilitarian approach personified by Mitt Romney’s years of business success at Bain Capital, and the moral argument in favor of limited government that has characterized the Tea Party movement. Especially in today’s context of an improving economy, it would not be wise to consign moral arguments to the primary season.

Finally, social issues like the HHS contraception mandate and same-sex marriage seem increasingly likely to play a significant role in this year’s general election. A big reason for this lies in the dismissive headlines quoted at the beginning of this article.

The left is dominant on social issues in the Democratic party. But despite huge success in the larger culture, the left has on occasion come to grief by overplaying its hand in presidential politics. The palpable desire of Republican elites to avoid confrontation on social issues leads the social left to move in for the kill on the assumption that the battle is already over.

But Democrats have not reckoned on the resilience of social conservative forces. The Roman Catholic bishops under the formidable leadership of Cardinal Timothy Dolan are just beginning to mobilize against the contraception/sterilization/abortion-pill mandate as a direct threat to the religious freedom of Catholics. And Obama and his team may be on the verge of putting an explicit commitment to same-sex marriage into the Democratic platform, which would make gay marriage a fully polarized issue this fall after the Democratic National Convention.

There is a demographic reason why social issues of this type have (in the 1980s and in 2004) favored Republican nominees in presidential elections: Swing voters in the pivotal heartland states are more conservative socially than they are economically—a mirror image of swing voters in the Northeast and Pacific Coast. Democrats may relearn this lesson after it is too late, assuming Republican elites—and the Republican nominee—take the minimal steps necessary to allow these issues to be part of the debate in the campaign leading up to Election Day this November.

Jeffrey Bell, policy director of the American Principles Project, is the author of The Case for Polarized Politics: Why America Needs Social Conservatism (Encounter Books).

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