GOP Targeting Fiscal Issues, Not Social Ones

Posted June 3, 2008 at 6:34pm

Although the California Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage might end up as campaign trail fodder this fall, Senate Republicans say they are not making a legislative effort on that or other cultural issues this year.

Republicans instead are looking to emphasize a results-oriented theme that sidesteps gay marriage, abortion and other social matters that have been a GOP trademark.

“There will be a lot of conservatives that decide this is an issue,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said, though he acknowledged that gay marriage will likely not be highlighted “as it has been in the past. But it will be in an indirect way because it brings into play the issue of judges.”

Thune predicted the California Supreme Court decision will likely figure heavily into efforts of conservative lawmakers and activists to revive interest in judicial nominations as campaigns ramp up in the fall. “It’ll certainly be there in the form of a debate on the judiciary and its role in our culture,” he said.

Cultural issues, including gay marriage, peaked during former Sen. Bill Frist’s (R-Tenn.) tenure as Majority Leader. During that time, the GOP’s Senate leadership was stocked with conservatives who emphasized cultural issues, most notably Frist; former Sen. George Allen (Va.), who served as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee in 2003 and 2004; and former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), who was chairman of the Senate Republican Conference during Frist’s leadership.

Santorum was one of the national leaders on gay marriage and abortion, and during his time as Conference chairman, he and other national Republican leaders made it a hallmark of their electoral and legislative efforts.

Throughout the summer of 2004, the GOP made gay marriage, abortion, flag burning and inclusion of God in the Pledge of Allegiance a part of its daily messaging efforts. Frist also held floor debates and scheduled votes on these issues. But 2006 marked a changing of the guard for Senate Republicans, with Frist retiring and both Santorum and Allen losing to Democratic challengers. As a result, while nearly all of the chamber’s 49 Republicans hold socially conservative beliefs, with the exception of Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.), few lawmakers have continued to make the culture war a central theme of their work in Washington, D.C.

In the 108th Congress, lawmakers in the House and Senate proposed 10 bills or constitutional amendments banning gay marriage, and in the 109th, lawmakers introduced nine. But during the 110th, only six bills have been introduced — including one by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), an openly gay member of the House — and none in the Senate.

Brownback and other conservatives said much of the reason that culture issues have largely dropped off the GOP radar is that Democrats have successfully avoided stumbling into debates on abortion or gay marriage.

“We haven’t had any good shots at it … the other side doesn’t want to bring it up,” Brownback said, adding that while “we may get a shot [on abortion policy] on the global HIV funding [bill], I’d credit Democrats more with not giving us a shot.”

He added: “These issues are still right for us. The American people are with us on life [and] the American people are with us on same-sex marriage.”

Brownback also contended that the GOP’s shift to fiscal issues has also been driven by Democrats’ ability to avoid social issues, which has forced Republicans to battle them on other fronts. “You get fiscal shots on almost every bill that comes up,” he said.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a leader of fiscal conservatives and longtime social conservative, agreed with Brownback, arguing that while the 2006 election might have left the Senate without clear leaders on social issues, their absence from the public debate has more to do with Democratic control of Congress.

“There’s not really much we can do with a Democrat majority except to try and stop things,” DeMint said, adding that “there are some things we want to do” on cultural issues and “we do need to go on the offensive.”

Privately, however, Republicans acknowledged that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) leadership team has looked to emphasize other issues that, at least for the moment, are more pressing to voters.

“They all believe the same things, but there’s just so much stuff going on … there’s Iraq, there’s the economy, there’s spending and that’s getting a lot of attention,” one longtime GOP aide said. This aide argued that while social issues are important, given the economic hard times, it is appropriate for Republicans to pivot to fiscal concerns. “Can you imagine what the public would think if we have $4 a gallon gas and the war and Iraq and we started talking about gay marriage? It would ring hollow,” the aide said.

One GOP leadership aide also said that unlike the Frist leadership team, Republican leadership under the McConnell has spent its energy on other issues. “These aren’t the same people” in charge, the aide said. “There are a lot of other important issues.”