On Social Issues, Santorum Could Have Learned from Bush


As Ramesh Ponnuru noted, Rick Santorum’s brand of social conservatism suffered from too many defects to win a Republican presidential nomination, let alone a general election. His tone was abrasive too often, whether he was commenting on JFK’s famous 1960 church-and-state speech or President Obama’s attitude toward those who do not enroll in college. His strategy lacked discrimination among issues; his comments about wanting to discuss the evils of artificial birth control as president were easily mis-characterized and distorted. And he refused to acknowledge political reality too often, as he gave the impression that he cared almost as much about combating online pornography than mass unemployment.

Yet I think that Santorum’s brand of social conservatism suffered from another defect Ramesh overlooked. Santorum didn’t adopt George W. Bush’s strategy on social issues: All action and no talk. Actually, that’s not quite right: For every one-quarter of a cup of talk, add three-quarters of a cup of action. Whatever the precise formula, Bush’s strategy on social issues was to talk less, whether the topic was abortion, homosexuality, or the church-state relationship, and to do more, whether it was signing legislation or executive orders and nominating conservative justices to the Supreme Court. To an extent that few social conservatives appreciate, including those apparently who ran Santorum’s campaign, Bush was as wise as a serpent and gentle as a dove.

It’s easy to forget that Bush’s rhetoric about social issues was low grade. Progressive intellectuals and cultural liberals asserted that Bush was bent on shoving a Christian theocracy down America’s throats. Yet their overheated rhetoric never matched his. He said his favorite philosopher was Christ. He discussed the need to build a culture of life. He didn’t criticize the use of artificial contraception. He said the Roe v. Wade decision was a stretch. While progressive bloggers and intellectuals said Bush’s talk amounted to dog whistles to social conservatives, perceptive and wise politicians of all stripes recognized them as smart politics.

It’s also easy to fail to appreciate Bush’s results on issues dear to social conservatives. Consider the issue most important of all to them, overturning Roe. Two vacancies on the Supreme Court opened up during Bush file’s presidency, and each time he nominated and the Senate approved a justice who can reasonably be counted on to overturn that ruling. Although going two for two might not sound like an impressive record, it is superior to that of any Republican president. Reagan was one for three, while Bush 41 was one for two. Bush’s conservative record on cultural issues was not limited to his Supreme Court nominees. He all but banned federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research; he signed into law a prohibition on partial-birth abortion; and he prosecuted the worst of hard-core pornographers.

Bush’s record on cultural issue was not perfect, as some social conservative bloggers never tire to point out. He did not ban federal funding on embryonic stem-cell research and he used no political capital to support legislation to ban gay marriage. But Bush’s brand of social conservatism did not alienate the two constituencies Santorum’s did: independents and suburban white-collar voters, especially those in the boom towns. This success enabled him not only to win the Republican Party’s nomination in 2000, but also to carry many purple states in two national elections. If cultural conservatives are to make their dreams reality, it will because their presidential candidates act less like a priest or preacher and more like a politician.

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2 thoughts on “On Social Issues, Santorum Could Have Learned from Bush

  1. tz1 says:

    And instead of an Elian Gonzalez style rescue, Bush jr signed a pontius pilate paper, and so Terry Schiavo died a slow, tortorous death at about this liturgical time.

  2. Joe M says:

    Great points. I didn’t like the increase in government spending under Bush. But, he got a lot of things right in my view. — Maybe I missed your meaning regarding gay marriage legislation. But, at one time, he did push for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as being between a man and woman.

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