Social Issues Are Back in 2012

COMMENTARY | Just in time for the 2012 presidential election, America’s tradition of cultural warfare appears to making an unwelcome resurgence. Uncertain, though, is whether this revert is just a brief departure from the economic debates that were so prominent in 2010, when fiscal conservatives touting the tea party brand were elected in spades to Congress. On the other hand, these social issues may be of high political significance. Certainly, with the economy in the process of improvement, critics of President Obama may be looking towards the perceived flaws of him and his party in another sphere altogether: the sociocultural realm of abortion, gay rights, and religious freedom.

It is in this domain that numbers are less pertinent. A good jobs report will not boost the president’s approval rating with staunch social conservatives the way it would, for instance, with right-leaning fiscal moderates. Incidentally, positive economic and employment reports from the past few months have impaired the ability of GOP hopefuls like Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich to juxtapose their suggested policies with the failed ones of today’s incumbent. If Obama does indeed prove successful in the time leading up to November, they will have to explore another angle to portray his four years as effective failure.

That angle, we can assume, will involve exploiting some of the polarization within the U.S. on various social issues. They won’t have to look too far to find some, either, as cultural warfare is totally back this February. Last month it was Obama’s health care plan and its requirement that church-run hospitals and universities provide their employees contraception, last week Planned Parenthood vs. Susan G. Komen, this week Proposition 8 vs. the Supreme Court and Ellen DeGeneres vs. 1 Million Moms. Next week, it’ll probably be something else (Roland Martin vs. underwear ads, maybe?)

Economics can be tricky and the financial intricacies too complex to reduce and analyze through simplistic cultural values. We cannot confidently assume, as Romney has, that Obama’s policies have slowed down economic recovery. But for social liberals, an attack on Planned Parenthood directly compares to an assault on the freedom of women. For social conservatives, a repeal of Proposition 8 is akin to declaring war on traditional family principles. These are clear perceptions guided by social convictions: ideals cemented deeply and significantly within their hosts.

And as the economic arguments fade into ambiguity, the social ones are becoming all the more prominent. Perhaps this explains why suddenly on Tuesday, Feb. 7, GOP voters gave Rick Santorum, their resident cultural warrior, extraordinary but unprecedented support at the voting booth. Romney, the perceived social moderate, faded and gave way to his family values cheerleader of an opponent. The twice-divorced Gingrich performed poorly as well and Ron Paul, known to be very socially liberal, too fared weakly.

Mitt Romney may have courted the GOP establishment with business credentials and empowered economic rhetoric, but now that Obama has a jobs record of his own, is the stock price of the former Governor in decline? Ultimately, the future is unknown. But it’s fair to postulate that as the election process carries on, there will be a correlation between the relevance of social issues and the success of the traditionally conservative Rick Santorum — at least while independents are out of the picture.

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