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Salvo 09.07.2022 10 minutes

Smothering Advantage

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The Republicans are replaying the 2012 Romney strategy, and may achieve the same results.

In 2012, the GOP elite was settled on what was, to their minds, an ingenious strategy: never talk about social issues ever, ever again. Instead, they would run solely on their economic message. Asked about abortion? Pivot to jobs as quickly as possible. Your opponent attacks you as a bigot on race or LGBT issues? Talk about taxes. The economy was bad, and voters, they were sure, were eager to hear their message of fiscal restraint and benefits for “job creators.” 

The Democrats would be able to say whatever they want on the icky stuff—abortion, gender and sexuality, racism, whatever—but voters would ultimately take a good look at the bad economic indicators and reward Republicans with a landslide victory.

The plan failed miserably. Mitt Romney, the “safe” GOP nominee for president, lost decisively. The economic message had been vague and unmotivating, and the silence on social issues had been suicidal, permitting the Democrats to define the debate however they wanted. 

Four years later, Trump put what should have been the final nail in the coffin for the dream party of the consultant class. He ran as an economic moderate and a social issue zealot—most notably on immigration, but on everything else, too. Remember his impressive attack on Hillary Clinton during their third presidential debate?

If you go with what Hillary is saying, in the ninth month you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth of the baby. Now, you can say that that’s okay, and Hillary can say that that’s okay, but it’s not okay with me… on the final day? That’s not acceptable. 

Trump refused to back away and let Democrats define him on social issues, instead attacking them on their own extremist positions. Despite the establishment’s dire predictions, this opportunity for Republican voters to reclaim control over their party’s core message brought victory in the general election and enduring political momentum.

Now, ten years after the Romney campaign, the establishment is trying to take back control and run the same, failing playbook. They’re advising candidates, especially after Dobbs, to avoid social issues entirely and instead talk about three things: inflation, inflation, inflation. They’re confident that all will be well as long as candidates follow this sage advice. “Prices are extremely high because of Democrats’ extremely reckless spending. That’s the policy voters care about most and what November will be decided on,” said the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), the House Republicans’ campaign arm, in July. Since then, the issue set has hardly broadened, and even then only vaguely— allusions to the Democrats being bad on crime or the border, before snapping back once more to the Consumer Price Index. 

Once again, the strategy is failing. A year ago, in a national environment inflamed by culture war issues, Republicans shifted both Virginia and New Jersey twelve points to the right compared to the 2020 election. Now, those gains seem to have been frittered away almost completely. National polls show Republican advantages dissipating, and special election results in recent months look grim. In the most recent special election in New York, the Republican candidate followed the establishment’s advice to the letter, talking about inflation while letting his opponent define him on abortion in ads. He lost in a district that you would expect, in a wave year, to be completely winnable. Compared to the 2020 presidential result, the Republican shift had gone from about +12 to practically 0.

But the establishment isn’t taking the hint. Responding to the loss in New York, Representative Tom Emmer, the head of the NRCC, issued a memo arguing it’s really no big deal, since “[t]he general election is going to be about kitchen table issues, and every private and public poll shows Republicans hold a commanding lead on the economic issues most important to voters.” To everyone else, however, it’s clear that something about the social issue strategy has to change. Marc Molinaro, the Republican candidate in the special election, put it this way in a Newsmax interview: “Rather than avoiding the topic, I think we have to talk honestly about […] what we believe and why we believe it and connect with people on this issue. I do think that is an important lesson.”

It’s clear that if Republicans keep leaving popular social-issue fights on the sidelines, the long-awaited red tsunami is never going to materialize. So why is the GOP establishment so determined to keep out of the culture wars? From the voters’ perspective, it seems like a baffling betrayal. Why would you sabotage yourself like that? Why would you run away from what you believe? 

But, of course, for many GOP elites, this is what they believe. To the extent that politicians care about anything other than winning their own elections, the establishment’s intellectual zeal is all on economic issues. In the best case, social issues are an afterthought. In the worst case, they consider them total embarrassments. Tom Emmer, for example, is a social liberal—he voted against the transgender military ban and regularly votes to inject transgender ideology even into completely unrelated appropriations bills. Among the consultant class, the GOP establishment’s personal disgust over socially conservative positions is deeply ingrained. Recall that the Lincoln Project guys used to be GOP consultants—there are plenty more of that breed still kicking around, even if they’re quieter about it.

And besides, they know they’ll never be held accountable for a loss. Their theory is unfalsifiable. If Republicans, despite the odds, manage to win in November, they’ll spin it as a vindication of their strategy. If they lose, or significantly underperform, they’ll argue that it’s all the fault of social conservatives. That’s the tack the RNC took in explaining their 2012 loss, and it’s certainly what the NRCC will say if they fail to win big this year.

The Republican leadership is pressing Republican House candidates to give tired, losing answers, focused on job creation, inflation, and soaring budgets, across the board. Late-term, no-restriction abortion, sexual indoctrination in schools, critical race theory, men in women’s sports, sex-changes for minors—we win all those fights by huge margins. But Republicans are told to keep them out of the spotlight. 

Luckily, some Republican candidates, seeing the writing on the wall, have decided to ignore the establishment’s strategy and run on winning social issues. Blake Masters, for example, despite the discontent in some corners of Twitter punditry, is one of the first Senate candidates to start taking the fight to the Democrats directly on their support for one of the least popular abortion regimes imaginable. In Michigan, Tudor Dixon has been fighting Gretchen Whitmer on sexual indoctrination in schools. And in Florida, Ron DeSantis has spent an entire term as governor picking popular culture war fights.

But unless other candidates start following suit, or the message from the top starts changing, expect November’s wave to fall far short of earlier expectations. Despite the lessons of the past decade, the GOP establishment seems insistent, for now at least, on staying the course. Candidates would be wise to ignore the warnings and start leaning into the culture wars again. Inflation, by itself, just isn’t going to be enough.

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