By Ralph Reed
Ralph Reed is a political strategist and chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. While Dan's away, we've asked a selection of prominent guest bloggers from a variety of perspectives to give their thoughts on religion and public life.
In an op-ed in USA Today, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer call the protests at healthcare town hall meetings "un-American." This was after Pelosi suggested that the opponents of Obamacare might have Nazi tendencies. These are remarkable attacks on fellow Americans, especially given then candidate, now Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's earlier protestation that debate and protest against "any administration" should never be labeled unpatriotic. (Watch video here.)
At first glance, these ham-handed attacks appear to be gaffes by desperate Democrats, but it turns out there is a method to their madness.
Their strategy is to demonize and stigmatize social and free-market conservatives. Why? Because they are key to a Republican comeback. In the postmortems after the 2008 election, many pundits and prognosticators could hardly contain themselves. They hurriedly wrote the obituary of the Republican Party and especially the conservative coalition of small-business owners, gun owners, and social conservatives who propelled the GOP majority from 1994 to 2006.
Those most enthusiastically dismissed were the social conservatives, the evangelicals, and pro-family Roman Catholics who played a central role in electing and re-electing George W. Bush. In 2004, voters of faith comprised 23 percent of the entire electorate and gave 78 percent of their votes to Bush, while only 21 percent supported John Kerry. Bush won the Catholic vote against the first Catholic nominee for president in 44 years and carried every state and every electoral vote in the South in both elections, where the plurality of social conservatives are found.
But 2008, we were solemnly informed, marked the end of the so-called wedge issues (read: values issues). In this formulation, Barack Obama appeared as the Great Healer, walking on the water, bridging the divide between the secular left and the devout right through the power of his eloquence and the unique appeal of his multicultural background.
But then it all came apart. Obama began to govern from the extreme left, overplaying his hand by pushing too many experiments in liberal social engineering too quickly. The initiatives tumbled out of the White House in a rushed jumble: the failed stimulus package, a budget that blew a $1.8 trillion hole in the deficit, the cap-and-tax bill that included a massive tax increase on the middle class, a government takeover of the automobile industry, and now healthcare. The Sonia Sotomayor nomination only deepened the growing unease of the electorate, as I have pointed out earlier, galvanizing conservative opposition (they opposed Sotomayor by a staggering 68 percent-to-17 percent margin) and alienating independents.
Obama's stratospheric approval ratings have plummeted, dropping an average of 10 points across the board, even more among seniors. This has provided an opening for the Republican opposition to be heard on a range of issues on which the American people have not listened since 2005.
Some commentators who celebrated Obama's ascension find this development deeply disturbing. Joe Klein bemoans what he calls the Return of the Hot-Button Issues. Klein decries the fact that right-wing demagogues are stoking the fires of cultural resentment. He goes on: "We are beset by wars and economic distress, and we no longer have the luxury of ceding these discussions to demagogues and fundraising interest groups. It's time to move on."
But most observers are missing the more salient and interesting development. Social conservatives are increasingly addressing a broader issues agenda. The initial spark was the tea parties in April, attended by up to 2 million people. Many, though not all, of these activists were social conservatives organized on social networking sites like Facebook. They were dismissed by opinion elites as rabble-rousers.
That, it turns out, was a miscalculation. Next came healthcare, in which social conservatives have made an important contribution to the debate by addressing the moral blind spots in Obama's plan, including taxpayer-funded abortion, rationing of care for the elderly, and mandatory "end of life" counseling. It turned out that the weak underbelly of government-run healthcare was not its high taxes and exploding debt but the extent to which it violated basic values and assaulted the moral sensibilities of millions of Americans.
The bottom line is that voters primarily motivated by their values will not go away. They are a persistent bunch. They have now gained a place at the table, they have been seasoned by the experience of building (and now losing) a governing majority, and they are going to speak to a broad range of issues, from the economy to climate change to healthcare. They will very likely be at the center of any GOP revival of fortunes. No amount of name-calling or intimidation will make them go away.