Will Republican Culture Warriors Snatch Defeat From The Jaws Of Victory?

I was recently invited to speak at the annual Conservative Leadership Conference in Raleigh, North Carolina, a regional red-meat gathering of the conservative faithful trying to help Republicans win back control of the government. Since I’m neither a conservative nor a Republican—nor faithful, for that matter, as I am a rather unabashed atheist—you might wonder what I was doing there. I’ll give you the same answer I gave the conference attendees. To have any hope of becoming a majority party, you ought to take a page from libertarians trying to make common cause with Republicans by focusing on economic freedom as a uniting cause, while setting the culture war aside.

The conservatives I met there are not the caricature often pushed in the mainstream media. Yes, they say grace before every meal. Yes, they take their religion seriously. And yes, their faith informs their behavior, language, and political beliefs. But this isn’t a bunch of old white racists seeking to disenfranchise minorities and send children to work in coal mines. This was a racially diverse crowd of thoughtful people concerned about the swelling power of Washington, the misuse of that power, and the fiscal disaster that awaits us if we don’t do something about it.

My talk was about how to reach the “Unaffiliated Persuadables,” independent swing voters who are disgusted, disengaged, and feel “damned-if-I-do-damned-if-I-don’t” when faced with the poor electoral choices served up by our entrenched party duopoly. Many describe themselves as socially liberal and fiscally conservative, which means that neither Republicans nor Democrats represent them. Like a pendulum, they swing back and forth, hoping “change” will rectify the excesses of the politicians in power, only to find themselves asking for “change” once again when they are inevitably disappointed.

The two forces fighting for the soul of the Republican Party are well exemplified by the two pastors who offered grace to the assembled attendees. The first, Reverend Robert Sirico, a Catholic priest and founder and president of the Acton Institute, describes his mission as one to “promote a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles.” Father Sirico had me so mesmerized I ended up interviewing him for RealClear Radio Hour. We then spent another 45 minutes talking religion, politics, and economics after the interview ended. His grace was inclusive, joyful, and optimistic, asking blessings upon all Americans, including those with whom we may have deep differences.

Guess which prayer would win over unaffiliated persuadables and which will drive them into the arms of the Democratic Party, possibly for good? I made that simple point when it came my turn to speak. I noted that while I am no expert, I don’t understand how condemning people for the way they are born exemplifies Christian principles, much less wins elections. To my satisfaction and relief, the audience agreed. I even had a pastor come up to me afterwards to shake my hand.

The question conservatives have to ask themselves is: Are they smart enough to avoid getting lured into the culture war traps reporter repeatedly set for them, or do they like talking amongst themselves so much that they are satisfied to remain an opposition party?

If conservatives think they can win elections by turning out their base regardless of who else they alienate, they are dreaming. And the same goes for the Democrats. The base of both parties may be getting shriller, but their overall ranks are shrinking. The first politician who figures out how to win over the millions of voters who hate base-pandering politicians will end up with all the marbles.

The Republican Party has not been handed better odds for victory since Jimmy Carter drove the country into the ground. The House, the Senate, and ultimately the Presidency are theirs to lose, if they can overcome their self-destructive inclination to talk economic liberty out of one side of their mouths while preaching culture war out the other.