Don't Let Them Cast NY23 as a Battle Over Social Policy

The meme taking hold on the other side (including in the MSM) about NY23 and all that surrounds it is that this is yet another chapter in the GOP’s ongoing civil war over social policies.  The insurgence against Scozzafava is being treated as an indication that conservative activists will allow no quarter for Republican candidates who support abortion rights or gay marriage.  And it’s those two positions that are most commonly used to distinguish Scozzafava from Hoffman.

Here’s Frank Rich from a recent NYT column:

The 23rd is in safe Republican territory that hasn’t sent a Democrat to Congress in decades. And Scozzafava is a mainstream conservative by New York standards; one statistical measure found her voting record slightly to the right of her fellow Republicans in the Assembly.

So, then, why exactly are you carrying her water, Mr. Rich?  If she’s a “mainstream conservative” and is “to the right of her fellow Republicans”, I would think that she’d be just as much in your crosshairs as Hoffman.

He continues:

But she has occasionally strayed from orthodoxy on social issues (abortion, same-sex marriage) and endorsed the Obama stimulus package. To the right’s Jacobins, that’s cause to send her to the guillotine.

Ah, there we have it.  Forget the taunting nature of his language and forget, also, Rich’s own opinions about social policy.  He’s not saying this because he hopes the GOP will be more hospitable to social liberals.  Rather, he’s saying it to drive social moderates and liberals away from the GOP on the suggestion that the party is growing more monolithic on social policy….and their side is losing.

This is deliberate.  And I hope that we don’t fall into the trap of accepting that version of the story.  There has never been any common social policy thread within the Tea Party movement which has spawned the revolt against Scozzafava.  Rather, the movement been about the expansion of the size and scope of government.

And that’s a Republican civil war that the left and the MSM clearly do not want us to have.  The civil war they do want our party to have is the one over social policies — because they believe that the GOP will marginalize itself by ostracizing people who are not strict social conservatives.

My point here is not to take sides in these critical, hot-button social issues.  It’s not to say that the current movement should belong to social liberals, moderates, or conservatives.  It’s to say that these issues are not what have defined it one way or another — and those of us invested in it should take care to keep it that way.

While I strongly disagree with the David Brooks’ and David Frums of the world about where the GOP should be heading, I do believe that the GOP cannot expect to build or maintain a coalition that is big enough or national enough to be politically viable if it is at all defined by social policy.

The answer for the Republican Party on social policy is not for social liberals and social conservatives to have a tug of war where one side wins the soul of the party and the other side loses it.  That is a surefire way to the kind of ruin that the Frank Riches of the world are predicting for the GOP.

Rather, the answer is federalism.  Instead of the national GOP taking a firm “one size fits all” side in those debates, how about simply recognizing that many areas of the country are quite socially and culturally conservative and many others are not?  Could leaders of the social conservative movement and the social liberal Republicans get together and declare that it’s in both of their best interests to seek a change of venue for their squabbles?

It would require concession on both of their parts — and they might not be easy to take.  The social liberals, for instance, would have to agree to being amenable to Roe being overturned.  Abortion belongs in the states — but it can’t get there so long as the Supreme Court is standing in the way.  But just because conservative states like Mississippi or Utah might tightly restrict abortion does not mean that every state has to.

I realize that this paradigm wouldn’t be without its faults.  A big issue in the debate over gay marriage, for instance, is the “full faith and credit” clause and how it impacts the way one state recognizes marriages certified by another.  And those are likely going to be issues settled by federal courts.  I’m not suggesting that all conflicts over social policy could or should be taken off the table at the federal level.  And I also realize that what I’m suggesting is easier said than done — not to mention easier discussed from a minority position than from a governing one.

But we’ve got to stay united at this time of choosing for our nation.  There are some things we’ll never agree on.  But I think that the most critical issues confronting us right now are ones where we share a lot of common ground.  We need to capitalize on that unity, rather than allow unrelated divisions — important though they are — to drive us apart into futility.

As Benjamin Franklin, the elder statesman of the American revolutionary class, reportedly said after the signing of the Declaration of Independence: “We must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.

The Second Continental Congress was not so much defined by what the delegates had in common, but by the pressures of divided loyalty, hopes for reconciliation with the King George, fears of the prospect of an unsuccessful insurrection, squabbles over the means and structure of a formal Continental Army, and debates over the necessity of foreign aid to win independence.  And these existed on top of other lingering divisions between the various colonies — such as slavery and the rights of sovereignty — that would only become more pronounced when and if independence was won.

Franklin was acutely aware of these divisions leading up to the eventual signing of the declaration.  While it would be wrong to cast Franklin as passive on any of these critical questions, in his role as the body’s elder statesman he appreciated dissenting views moreso than most of the other advocates of asserting independence from the crown.  More than anything, Franklin feared that the colonies’ own divisions posed just as big a threat to the bid for independence as any armies or navies George could throw at them.

Following the adoption and signing, John Hancock is said to have remarked how all the colonies and their delegates must “hang together” — to which Franklin reportedly responded with his clever gallows humor.  Whether or not the story is true or apocryphal, the moral is clear and applicable to the challenge we’re all facing today:

United We Stand.  Divided We Fall.

If we allow our long-standing internecine disagreements to become active divisions, this movement will never make it beyond its infancy.  We’ve got some momentum now and our adversaries are intentionally trying to exploit these disagreements to thwart that.  We need to acknowledge that they’re there, that they aren’t going away, and have a dialogue about how best to deal with them when and if we ever do find our way out of the political wilderness.

But, for God’s sake, let’s not turn this into a struggle over the Republican Party’s soul on abortion, gay marriage, and other cultural lightning rods.  There’s a reason that Frank Rich, etal are trying to cast it as that — it plays right into their hands.