‘We look like Camp Christian out here’

‘WE LOOK LIKE CAMP CHRISTIAN OUT HERE’…. The notion of a culture war “truce” is fading fast, at least among those who’ll decide the outcome of the first Republican nominating contest.

The ailing economy and the Tea Party’s demand for smaller government have dominated Republican politics for two years, but a resurgent social conservative movement is shaping the first stage of the presidential nominating contest, complicating the strategy for candidates who prefer to focus on fiscal issues over faith.

Here in Iowa, whose caucuses next winter will open the campaign, social and religious conservatives are pressing the likely candidates on issues like same-sex marriage and abortion rather than on jobs, the budget deficit and other economic concerns that leaders of both parties expect to dominate the general election.

Doug Gross, a prominent Republican activist in Iowa, expressed concern that the GOP isn’t positioning itself well for appealing to a broader mainstream. “We look like Camp Christian out here,” he said.

There’s a credible case to be made that Iowa is fairly unique, at least among the early nominating contests, with a dominant religious right presence one won’t find in, say, New Hampshire.

But that realization doesn’t matter much when prominent GOP candidates trip over one another to embrace “Christian Nation” claptrap, endorse reinstatement of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” condemn the existence of public schools, and argue over who hates gays, abortion, evolution, and sharia most.

And over the long haul, after these candidates have locked themselves in as culture warriors, desperate to impress vaguely theocratic activists in Iowa, it becomes that much more difficult to shift back to appealing to the mainstream.

But the key takeaway here is that fiscal issues have largely been relegated to afterthought status. That’s just not what these right-wing activists — the ones who’ll largely dictate the outcome of the caucuses — are focused on. Indeed, even Ron Paul, after pandering to a home-school crowd last week, conceded, “I haven’t been asked too much about fiscal issues.”

From time to time in recent years, I’ve bought into the notion that the culture war is losing its salience and relevance as most Americans either (a) want to move on; (b) shift to the left on the hot-button issues; or (c) both.

The passion on these issues among Republican leaders, though, including likely presidential aspirants, hasn’t faded, in part because folks like these Iowans won’t let it. It’s why Pawlenty wants DADT back, Gingrich is pretending to take Christianity seriously again, Santorum wants to eliminate public education altogether, and the Boehner-led Congress has prioritized abortion over jobs.

The Tea Party phenomenon was supposed to mark a shift — away from the culture war and towards an obsession over taxes and spending. As the presidential jockeying gets underway in earnest, the shift may have been more wishful thinking than fact.