Conservatives Need Social Issues to Paper Over Their Fiscal Failures

But a truce in the culture wars, which Mitch Daniels recommended, could force Republicans to actually take on serious fiscal reform.

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When Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, a socially conservative deficit hawk, was still weighing whether or not to run for president, he tested out the notion that the Republican Party should call a truce on social issues. Confronting America's alarming fiscal imbalance was that urgent, he avowed. Although that was way back in June 2010, the tireless Dave Weigel hasn't forgotten. He says new polling data showing an electorate focused on the economy proves that Gov. Daniels was right all along. Doug Mataconis agrees. But Daniel Larison isn't having it:

If social issues are lower priorities for the majority of voters, and far more people claim that the budget deficit and Medicare are "very important" to their vote, that suggests that a focus on these issues isn't what gets in the way of addressing fiscal and economic problems effectively. The "truce" is a remedy to a problem that doesn't exist. It's because the "truce" was so irrelevant that I never quite understood why there was so much hostility to Daniels from social conservatives after he mentioned it, but I suppose it seemed like yet another example of unnecessarily dismissive treatment that social conservatives have become so tired of experiencing .... Calling a "truce" on social issues wouldn't facilitate entitlement reform, it wouldn't close the partisan gap on tax policy, and it wouldn't end the contentious disputes over the level and nature of domestic discretionary spending. As the arguments surrounding Paul Ryan's budget show, fiscal debates have their moral and religious elements as well.

As someone who would love to see the GOP focus less on social issues, I must concede that Larison may be right. But in focusing on whether a truce would help bring Republicans and Democrats together, I wonder if he doesn't neglect what I regard as its most salutary possible effect: If folks inclined toward fiscal conservatism mostly agreed to put their other causes aside to make it happen, GOP pols would face unprecedented pressure to come through on spending and entitlements -- the very thing Republicans almost never manage to do.

Ronald Reagan was forgiven for failing to shrink government or reduce deficits because of the Cold War. President Bush managed to keep his constituency because it preferred his approach to the War on Terrorism. An agreement to suspend needless war-making in order to focus on the deficit would probably be more useful than a truce on social issues. It's neoconservatives, not social conservatives, who bear substantial responsibility for blowing trillions on catastrophic wars of choice that failed miserably in achieving their avowed goals. But God, guns, gays, and cultural resentment have also helped Republicans to win votes without delivering on fiscal matters.

What if that wasn't good enough for GOP voters anymore?

That is the supposed logic behind the Tea Party. Its leaders are constantly talking about how the right is focusing on fiscal matters at the moment. Implicit in that formulation is that less focus is being put on social issues. Of course, the Tea Party hasn't yet achieved any policy successes, despite all the self-congratulatory bluster about its importance. But it has affected the ways in which GOP politicians are rewarded. What does it take to be a rising star these days? Well, a budget like Paul Ryan's will apparently do it, which wouldn't have been true in the Bush era.

Daniels is attuned to how politically difficult significant fiscal reform is going to be -- how long the odds are that we'll achieve it -- and so even though a truce on social issues was always implausible, it may nevertheless be the only way policy changes on the scale of what Daniels deems necessary were going to happen. GOP politicians were never going to do something as unpopular as reforming entitlements in the short term as long as there was any other way to win votes. I think Daniels was trying to deny them the ability to win on any issue save fiscal reform.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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