In a New York Times op-ed today, Romesh Ponnuru notes that the modern GOP moves right after it loses the White House (Nixon/Ford gave way to Reagan; Bush the Elder gave way to Gingrich). And once again, as House Republican leader John Boehner writes in today's Washington Post, there is a hue and cry from conservatives to get back to basics. Standing for something is always better than standing for nothing, and the GOP will need to resist the calls that it moderate its views to appeal to the "moderates" in the middle of the spectrum.
But Ponnuru, a senior editor at National Review, makes the salient point that retrenching isn't enough. While the GOP shouldn't move to the middle, it should move to the middle class. In other words: Embrace conservatism, but don't forget (as McCain did) to explain it with more relevance.
One line from Ponnuru's piece, however, sticks in my craw: "The way to court these moderates is not to abandon social conservatism, which would alienate many of the voters Republicans still have."
If Ponnuru means to warn against the wholesale repudiation of the social values that the Republican Party stands for, then I agree. But if he means that that social agenda should retain the pre-eminent status it has enjoyed in the Republican Party in the last 15 years, then I do not.
For too long, Republican Party officials, and George W. Bush particularly, have mistaken conservatism broadly for social conservatism. The latter is an important (and vocal) element of the movement, to be sure, but it is only that: an element. Conservatism's adherents are broader than the Religious Right.
There's very little doubt among voters that the GOP stands more for traditional cultural values than the Democrats. Where there is considerable doubt, however, is about whether the GOP stands for commonsense tax-and-spend policies. As the deflated conservative base in this election shows, the Bush belief that any fiscal or spending apostasy could be made right with a push on social values is wrong.
So, by all means, play defense on social values. If the fight arises, the GOP should fight back. But Republicans shouldn't waste time and energy pushing new values-oriented proposals. And besides, as the defeat of a gay marriage proposition even in pro-Obama kooky California showed, America's voters don't need help from the Republican Party on social issues.