Mitch Daniels and the Problem of Social Conservatism

Mitch Daniels, the Republican governor of Indiana who could possibly enter the 2012 presidential or vice presidential discussion, is taking some heat for saying that social issues will have to take a backseat to the economy under the next presidency.

Daniels told The Weekly Standard's Andy Ferguson, for a cover piece in the magazine's latest issue:
 ...the next president, whoever he is, "would have to call a truce on the so-called social issues. We're going to just have to agree to get along for a little while," until the economic issues are resolved. Daniels is pro-life himself, and he gets high marks from conservative religious groups in his state. He serves as an elder at the Tabernacle Presbyterian Church, in inner-city Indianapolis, which he's attended for 50 years.

Daniels was later asked, this time by Weekly Standard blogger John McCormack, whether he simply wanted to de-emphasize social issues or whether he wouldn't act on them if elected president. It was the latter. When asked if the next president should push tighter abortion-funding restrictions (essentially, the more conservative line that was pushed by Republicans and Democrat Bart Stupak during health care reform) or reinstate the Mexico City executive order on funding for NGOs that counsel people on abortion in other countries, Daniels said we face a "genuine national emergency" regarding fiscal sustainability. He said he didn't know if he would reinstate the Mexico City policy if elected, which he could do with a wave of his presidential pen.

Unsurprisingly, this has not gone over well with one of the nation's leading social conservatives, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council. In a weekly newsletter, Perkins takes the Indiana governor to task, Reid Wilson reports at Hotline OnCall:

"Not only is he noncommittal about his role as a pro-life leader, but the Governor wouldn't even agree to a modest step like banning taxpayer-funded promotion of abortion overseas," Perkins wrote in his newsletter today. "I support the Governor 100% on the call for fiscal responsibility, but nothing is more fiscally responsible than ending the taxpayer funding of abortion and abortion promotion."

"Regardless of what the Establishment believes, fiscal and social conservatism have never been mutually exclusive. Without life, there is no pursuit of happiness," Perkins wrote. "Thank goodness the Founding Fathers were not timid in their leadership; they understood that "truce" was nothing more than surrender."

This whole dispute is emblematic of a problem Republicans will confront in the next presidential election: how to approach social issues.

The locus of conservative energy right now is fiscal issues. The Tea Party, to some extent, wants to suppress the discussion of social issues at its events. (At rallies, there are sometimes "people that inject God and social issues into their speeches, and we ask them not to do that," Sal Russo, the Republican consultant who launched the influential group Tea Party Express, told me recently. Other leaders have agreed that fiscal issues are the common denominator; there is room for social conservatism, but it's not what they want to talk about.)

With fiscal conservatism on the rise, Daniels is sounding the right note by prioritizing fiscal issues over social ones.

There is one problem with that: even though fiscal conservatives want to talk about fiscal issues and not social ones, I suspect that many of them actually are social conservatives anyway.

For a couple years now, it has seemed that social conservatism has been falling by the wayside. As Marc noted in May, even Republicans can silently agree that they don't really want to prevent gay couples from marrying, or civil unionizing, or being afforded the same rights and governmental recognition as straight couples.

As a result, social conservatives like Perkins may see their stars fading. But, aside from the fact that Republicans still face pressure oppose gay marriage and legalized abortion in public, social conservatives have one important trump card--one that people like Daniels must note. And it is this: social conservatives are strong in Iowa. A network of influential social conservative groups, like the Iowa Christian Alliance, still draws courtship from Republican presidential candidates. Witness social conservative Mike Huckabee's performance in Iowa in 2008.

So despite the attempt by Daniels to get away from social issues, it looks like the next president will enter the White House having tailored the early part of his or her campaign to the likes of Perkins, anyway.