As Republican presidential contenders meet for their first debate on Thursday (live on MSNBC TV and MSNBC.com at 8 p.m. ET), social conservatives, a powerful force within the GOP, face the possibility that the party will nominate a candidate next year who isn’t really one of them.
Arizona Sen. John McCain and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, front-runners in most national polls of Republicans, have clashed with conservatives in the past on abortion, immigration and gay rights.
And former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who only five years ago said he supported the “substance” of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade abortion decision, has altered his views to become what he now calls “firmly pro-life.”
It’s feasible that a more deep-dyed conservative such as Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas could win the nomination, but at this point that seems improbable.
A conservative tide
It’s odd that social conservatives should now face the prospect of one of their own not being the GOP nominee, because a tide of conservatism has moved across politics in the past few years, as evidenced by:
- The Senate confirmations of John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court in 2005 and 2006.
- Last week’s Supreme Court ruling that upheld the ban on the procedure known as partial birth abortion.
- The enactment by ballot initiatives in 22 states of laws or constitutional amendments to ban marriages between same-sex couples.
In the current field, Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., with a 97.8 percent lifetime vote rating from the American Conservative Union (ACU), probably comes closest to pure conservatism. McCain, by comparison, has an 82.3 lifetime ACU rating, while Brownback earns a 94.
(The ACU scores are based on roll call votes in Congress, so contenders like Giuliani don’t have ACU ratings.)
Tancredo’s views may be too audacious to appeal to GOP donors.
For example, he puts part of the blame for illegal immigration on “high-donor contributors from big corporations that benefit from the labor they can exploit from illegal aliens” — not a good way to woo the restaurant, hotel and construction industries.
Lessons of 2006?
After the GOP defeats of 2006, conservatives could decide that the pragmatic move is to back Giuliani.
He could appeal to centrist voters and could re-shape Electoral College strategy by forcing Democrats to defend Northeastern states such as Pennsylvania, where a recent poll showed Giuliani defeating Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in hypothetical match-ups.
But conservative Alexia Newman, the South Carolina Republican Party first vice chairman, said the reason Republicans lost in 2006 is that “we didn’t stick to our guns. Some of the Republicans who ran were not social conservatives.”
Picking a candidate on the basis of a misreading of the lessons of 2006 “would be a mistake,” she said.
Mike Long, head of New York’s Conservative Party, agreed. “I don’t think 2006 was a conservative defeat.”
For 2008, Long said, “Conservatives are going to look for the most viable candidate who can promote conservative values and appoint conservative judges.”
Social conservatives came to power within the Republican Party in the 1990s on the strength of traditional family issues: abortion, vouchers for private and religious schools, and opposition to gay rights.
Immigration eclipses other issues?
But has illegal immigration eclipsed the social issues agenda? Is immigration more important than abortion or marriage?
“I don’t want to use the words ‘more important,’ but I do think there’s a larger coalition forming around the illegal immigration question,” said Long. “We’re losing our country.”
Since the road to the nomination begins in Iowa, it’s worth heeding the views of Rep. Steve King, who represents the most conservative part of the state.
So far uncommitted in the presidential race, King said, “I don’t think we’re having the kind of debate on immigration we ought to have. Nobody is asking the question ‘how many are too many?’”
He also said, “There are at least two candidates, and I want to say more than two, that are real solid on the social issues, in terms of being pro-life and pro-marriage. Generally the weakness they run into is their posture on immigration, because somehow their religious convictions say to them ‘welcome the traveler.’ If you welcome all travelers, you can’t have a sovereign nation.”
The two contenders King referred to are Brownback and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
According to King, his House colleagues Tancredo and Rep. Duncan Hunter of California “are there on every one of the high priority issues. Still, that doesn’t necessarily equate into traction because these highly principled Iowa caucus goers are also pragmatic in taking a look at who can win the election.”
In South Carolina, where another decisive early contest will be fought, Newman said, “I think abortion and marriage are still going to be paramount to social conservatives. The life issue and family values still get us excited. We saw that when Bush was re-elected in 2004.”
Newman isn’t keen on Giuliani, due to his abortion views. “He will tell you he hates abortion, but he’s not going to do anything to change it,” she said.
Does his professed support for conservative judicial nominees assure her? “No,” she replied. “Because he hasn’t said he would do anything to change Roe v. Wade.”
McCain's record on judicial nominees
Since federal judges largely determine social policy, McCain should be able to appeal to social conservatives by pointing to his strong record on judicial nominees.
He voted to confirm right-of-center nominees Robert Bork in 1987 and Clarence Thomas in 1990, as well as Alito and Roberts.
McCain also voted against a resolution saying the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade abortion decision “secures an important constitutional right” and shouldn’t be overturned.
But alienating conservatives, McCain also co-sponsored last year’s immigration bill that would have allowed illegal immigrants to gain legal status.
And in 2000 he called conservative leaders Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell “agents of intolerance” and “the forces of evil” in the Republican Party.
Giuliani and illegal immigrants
As for Giuliani, as mayor, he enforced a policy that ordered city agencies to not report illegal immigrants to the federal authorities for deportation.
“There are times when undocumented aliens must have a substantial degree of protection,” he argued in 1996. “For example, parents fearful of having their family deported may very well not send their children to public schools.”
To win support from social conservatives, does Giuliani have to recant on immigration and abortion?
“I don’t think he has to say he was wrong,” said Long. “He has to pledge what he will do if he’s president, what his policy will be on illegal immigrants.”
One conservative who’ll be absent from Thursday night’s debate is former Sen. Fred Thompson, who, during his eight years in the Senate, earned an 86 out of 100 ACU rating.
Conservatives are waiting for him to make his move.
“I don’t know that there is substantial coalescing behind any candidate at the moment,” said Iowa activist Loras Schulte, who ran Gary Bauer’s Iowa campaign in 2000. “It is still wide open. You begin to wonder what happens if and when Fred Thompson gets in the race. He could play a major role in our caucuses.”
“His record, while not perfect, resonates with a lot of conservatives,” said Long.