Politics and Public Opinion

Do Social Issues Matter?

jackalopeThat’s Dany’s “exit question.” Marc says yes. I say hell yes. First of all, I’m not sure that the evidence prompting Dany’s question is all that powerful. The fact the GOP hasn’t “booted” Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and Florida Governor Charlie Crist doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that should prompt the question. Hutchison was crushed in a gubernatorial primary about a month ago. The reason she’s not being booted is that she has flip-flopped and decided not to resign her Senate seat as promised. Charlie Crist is being crushed by Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio in the polls going into their primary contest. He may in fact be booted insofar as he will probably run as an Independent if (when) he is flattened in the primary.

I think part of the problem is the term “fiscal conservative.” It’s something of a throwback phrase suggesting green-eyeshadism. Rockefeller Republicans tend to call themselves “fiscal conservatives.” So do those jackalopes of American politics, people who claim to be “socially liberal but fiscally conservative.”

I prefer the term “economic conservative.” Fiscal conservatives tend to be focused on balanced budgets rather than low taxes and limited government. They are, in Newt Gingrich’s memorable description of Bob Dole, “tax collectors for the welfare state.” The first President Bush, by some people’s reckoning, was a fiscal conservative for raising taxes in his 1990 budget deal. But the man who coined “voodoo economics” was no economic conservative. Jack Kemp, meanwhile, was a committed economic conservative and a pro-life, social conservative.

Here’s the funny thing. The notion that there are “social conservatives” over here and “economic conservatives” over there is wildly overstated by many political commentators. Some of that overstatement is deliberate. Some partisans on both sides of the political aisle seem keen on writing off social conservatives in favor of some new constituency usually to be named later. Some of it stems from this confusion over, and conflation of, the terms fiscal conservative and economic conservative.

If you look around the American political landscape it’s just hard to find a lot of socially liberal, fiscally conservative types. It turns out that being socially liberal is a pretty good—though hardly perfect—indicator of fiscal profligacy. Meanwhile, the more pro-life you are, the more likely you are to be a free-market, low-tax conservative. The more pro-choice you are, the more likely it is that you will be liberal across all categories. This is obviously untrue in some individuals, but as a general trend it seems undeniable. Phil Gramm, the best deregulator of the last 20 years, was adamantly pro-life. Even Ron Paul, the arch libertarian congressman from Texas, almost surely would lose his seat if he weren’t ardently pro-life. Marco Rubio is a social conservative, so is Texas Governor Rick Perry.

The Tea Party-fueled insurgency Marc Thiessen discusses is surely not synonymous with a social conservative uprising, but it’s pretty doubtful that the GOP could survive by abandoning social issues. Rather, I think that Arthur Brooks’s formulation gets at the heart of the matter: The sudden, massive, growth in the federal government has itself become a social issue. Economic concerns have sparked the age-old question driving social conservatives “What kind of country will we be?” But that hardly means social conservatism doesn’t matter anymore.

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