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A Big Tent on the Right

The multiplier effect of adding Tea Partiers to social ­conservatives.

Sep 20, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 01 • By JEFFREY BELL
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The election cycles of 1988 and 2004 are the most recent in which social issues had a significant pro-Republican impact on a presidential election, electing George H.W. Bush and reelecting his son. (They also happen to be the only two elections of the last six in which Republicans carried the popular vote for president.) We can all argue the extent to which social issues turned those two elections, but my guess is that few Democratic strategists, if they had it to do over again, would advise Governor -Michael Dukakis to defend the law that furloughed Willie Horton to commit a rape in Maryland, or would advise the governor to defend his veto of a bill that would have required the Pledge of Allegiance with its phrase “under God” to be said in his state’s public schools. 

Even fewer, I believe, would have encouraged the nationwide movement for same-sex marriage to time a successful court fight in Massachusetts in a manner that triggered 11 state referenda in a presidential year, including one in pivotal Ohio. My guess is that, not just subsequently but at the time, these hypothetical Democratic strategists would not have advised John Kerry to say with visible irritation to CBS’s Bob Schieffer in the final presidential debate the following words about Mary Cheney, whose name he did not mention: “We’re all God’s children, Bob. And if you were to talk to Dick Cheney’s daughter, who is a lesbian, she would tell you that she’s being who she was, she’s being who she was born as.”

Social issues are not often as prominent as they were in those two presidential races. And voters who are conservative on same-sex marriage, abortion, or the mention of God in public schools, have tended to scatter widely when the prominent issues instead are economic. These voters may still prefer the Republican nominee on social issues, but in a cycle where there is no high-profile controversy concerning social issues, such voters have often judged the candidates almost exclusively on economic and/or national security issues. And the latter two issue clusters have far less predictability as presidential voting issues, since they are more likely to be situational or event-driven in nature. In other words: How strong is the economy, or how is the war going? A voter’s answer to situational questions like these often drives his or her vote, or at least sets a political stage that starts out favorably or unfavorably for the incumbent party.

The emergence of the Tea Party movement raises the possibility that conservative Republicans are gaining an ability to make voting on economic issues less situational and more ideological. In other words, various types of conservatives are being more securely knit together. The movement is too new for this to be more than a possibility, but a test may well come when the Obama economy begins to improve. If this happens, as at some point it almost certainly will, does support for the president go up and the Tea Party movement fade? Or does the ideological component of the Tea Party’s anti-big-government rebellion enable it to survive as an ongoing political force with a more and more specific agenda​—even in the context of a better economic environment for the president and other Democratic incumbents?

The big reason I am optimistic about the latter being the case is something the Tea Party has in common with social conservatism: that is, the two movements’ affinity for America’s founding values.

The Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation, and other right-of-center advocacy groups have for a number of years made available to the public free pocket copies of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. More than a year ago these pocket copies began being observed at Tea Party rallies around the country. A wide range of these locally based Tea Party movements are conducting seminars on the ideas of America’s Founders.

As for social conservatism and its relation to the American founding, Professor Robert George of Prince-ton, one of the most prominent of a new generation of social conservative leaders, has often remarked that belief in the words “All men are created equal”—literal belief, rather than as a sentiment or metaphor—is by far the best predictor of whether someone is a social conservative. If you believe those words from the Declaration are literally true, then the odds are you are a social conservative.

Given this rootedness in the founding, social conservatives and Tea Partiers have no problem with the idea of American exceptionalism centered on the idea that all persons are born with God-given equal rights. In other words, like Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan, both movements feature a belief in an American exceptionalism that is in fact universal.

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