Will 2012 Be About Social Conservatism After All?

Rick Santorum may be about to do what was unimaginable to most people just a few weeks ago: take 2 of 3 states from Mitt Romney. Yet Santorum is still considered a long shot for the Republican nomination, and the presidency. That is because his campaign has lacked money and organization; he is still failing to qualify for ballots in several states, for example. But it is also because Santorum’s social conservatism is seen as a liability.

Rick Santorum in Minnesota (Photo: AP / Washington Times)

Conventional wisdom has long held that the 2012 election would be about fiscal and economic issues, not social issues such as abortion or gay marriage. The Tea Party movement seemed to have put limited-government issues ahead of social issues on the Republican agenda. And controversy over the religious views of presidential candidates like Michele Bachmann seemed an obstacle to their success in the general election.

But social conservatism may be due for a revival, for three reasons. First, the Obama administration and the left in general have provoked fights with religious communities. Catholic voters are upset by Obama’s decision to force religious institutions to offer contraceptives and abortifacients under ObamaCare; opponents of gay marriage are upset by (largely) liberal efforts to overturn Proposition 8, California’s 2008 referendum.

Second, fiscal conservatism has proved insufficient, by itself, to sustain opposition to the Obama agenda. The nation’s leading fiscal conservative governors and legislators all declined to run for president; the Tea Party has been unable to settle on a single candidate; and Republicans’ limited-government agenda has stalled in Congress in the face of Democrat stonewalling in the Senate and infighting among House leaders.

Third, the Republican frontrunner, Gov. Mitt Romney, has the resources and the resumé to take the fight to Obama, but has struggled to draw clear contrasts with the President. Both Republicans and Democrats seem unsure what Romney’s core convictions really are. Though charges that he is a “flip-flopper” are somewhat exaggerated, the one shift Romney readily acknowledges is on the abortion issue (he became pro-life in office).

Santorum’s (belated) victory in the Iowa caucuses owed much to his campaign’s explicit appeals to evangelical voters on social issues. Yet even voters who disagree with him on those issues may be attracted by the fact that he has a set of values that he is not willing to sacrifice under any circumstances. After a year of frustrating compromises in Congress–for both sides–Santorum’s strong stances on social issues may be a plus.

Tactically, the former Pennsylvania senator has taken a lesson from rival Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), who shares Santorum’s pro-life views but emphasizes his other positions. On yesterday’s Mark Levin Show, for example, Santorum spoke emphatically about individual liberty and economic freedom, but did not spend much time on social issues.

It also remains unclear whether Santorum will pose a serious threat to Romney. But the broader truth indicated by Santorum’s resurgence may be that fiscal and social issues are inseparable–not just because Republicans depend on social conservative votes, but also because economic freedom has often drawn strength from religious freedom.

The church is an imperfect guardian of individual liberty, but Obama’s expansive state is liberty’s clear enemy. That is why 2012 could see a social conservative revival after all.