At CPAC, Conservatives Downplaying the Culture Wars

National Journal

At the 2011 Conservative Political Action Conference, then-Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels famously discussed his support of a "social truce," for putting issues like abortion and gay marriage on the back burner in favor of focusing on the economy and fiscal issues.

That didn’t go over so well with conservatives back then. But two years later at CPAC, the former governor's controversial advice has been largely adopted, even if disagreements on hot-button social issues are simmering just below the surface.

Many young activists at CPAC want more attention to be paid on fiscal rather than social issues, particularly gay marriage. On Friday, prominent Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio reversed his opposition to gay marriage, after his son told him he was gay. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky recently suggested tolerance for same-sex unions.

Indeed, the emphasis of many CPAC speeches steered clear of mentions of abortion, gay marriage, and other social issues. Past presidential candidate Rick Santorum blamed Hollywood and the media for promoting "a culture of titillation and violence that numbs our sense," said faith played a critical role in the founding of America, and criticized "those who say we should abandon our moral underpinnings so we can win." But he didn’t zero in on any particular policy disputes, pivoting toward proposals to enhance economic growth.

Many conservative activists at CPAC oppose abortion rights and gay marriage, but are aware their views on those hot-button topics could alienate moderate voters. GOP activist Jim Oleson of Massachusetts said that while he opposes gay marriage, “on social issues, the Republicans are missing the boat. No more Bible-thumping, abortion-thumping, let’s just get our fiscal house in order and let those issues fall where they fall.”

“Fiscal issues should drive the conservative agenda,” Michael Libor of Pennsylvania said. “In life, there are always priorities, and in my view right now the priority is the fiscal dilemma and the problems that the country has.”

But other forces will soon bring social issues back into the spotlight: The Supreme Court will take up gay-marriage bans, and passage of abortion limits on the state level has been on the rise. CPAC isn’t entirely ignoring social issues. A main-stage panel entitled “The Pro-Life Fight: 40 Years After Roe v. Wade” followed former presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s speech. And GOProud, a group of gay conservatives, was snubbed this year after having been invited in previous year. (They participated in an unofficial panel on Thursday).

It’s increasingly becoming an awkward dance to manage the desires of younger libertarian-minded conservatives with those of social conservatives, whose issues are the same ones the base feels most passionately about.

The Rev. John Boyles, who once served as pastor for President Reagan, said CPAC needed more emphasis on “important social issues, like life and marriage,” and that changing stances on gay marriage will do damage to the party by alienating the conservative base.

“They won’t be enthusiastic about any candidate who does not take traditional positions and they’ll tend to drop out of the party system,” he said.

“We’re going to be in a lot of trouble if we start giving on what our country was founded on,” says Janice Westmoreland, a Georgia tea-party activist and conservative Christian who says that she’s “not willing to move on the social issues.” At the same time, she acknowledged that on issues such as abortion, “I think the train has left the station. I think it is what it is, and it’s unfortunate.”

There’s still palpable energy around such issues. One of the most enthusiastic responses throughout the conference thus far came as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida spoke up in defense of his views on gay marriage and alluded to abortion.

“Just because I believe states should have the right to define marriage in the traditional way does not make me a bigot,” he said to a roaring crowd. “The people who are actually close-minded in our society are the ones who love to preach about climate science and refuse to believe the science that life begins at conception.”

Illustrating the balancing act conservatives are trying to attain, it was only fitting that Paul would follow. With rock-star reception, he spoke of civil liberties, cutting back on military interventionism, and the need to appeal to the “Facebook generation.”

"The GOP of old has become stale and moss-covered," Paul said. "The new GOP will need to embrace liberty in both the economic and the personal sphere.”

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