Can’t Have It Both Ways

One of the things about checking out of political talk for a day or two is that it offers a moment for regaining perspective. Checking back in today, I see a panel on MSNBC where a Republican consultant is complaining that Republican candidates are talking about anything other than the economy. I hear Rick Santorum complaining that “the media” have invented the current preoccupation with contraception. I read background reports that congressional Republicans feel trapped by the furor over the Blunt-Rubio Amendment, and wish it would all go away.

For much of the last year, Republicans have been saying constantly that all they have to do is to focus monomaniacally on the economy and they can’t lose in 2012. But somehow or other, they don’t. When the Catholic bishops went ballistic over the administration’s contraception coverage mandate (or to speak more strictly, over the scope of the “conscience exception” it provided), the air was filled with Republican cackling over the epochal, victory-sacrificing mistake Obama had made (echoed, as a matter of fact, by some Democrats). The GOP presidential candidates were all over the issue, shouting about this unprecedented threat to religious freedom.

Now that the controversy hasn’t turned out like they anticipated it would, suddenly Republicans are pretending they never cared about it to begin with.

The simple truth is that the GOP’s conservative “base” cares passionately about “cultural issues,” is constantly rewarding candidates who exploit them, and has elevated to totemic status blowhards like Rush Limbaugh who palpably want to return to the patriarchal mores of the 1950s.

I’d have more respect for Republicans if they just came right out and admitted that these spasms of cultural reaction–these “Terri Schiavo Moments”–are highly illustrative of the vision for the country’s future that they and their party stands for. You could make a pretty strong case that the GOP deployment of economic arguments–and certainly the fiscal arguments they only care about when they are not in power–is the real distraction from the fundamental determination of conservatives to re-create the society of their imagination, where Dad was large and in charge in every home, where Authority was rarely challenged in the classroom, the boardroom, or the bedroom, and where America itself was only wrong when it failed to fully exercise its righteous power.

But even if I’m exaggerating the power of cultural issues, it really is time to call ultimate B.S. on the whining of Republicans when their dog-whistles and out-loud overt appeals to advocates of cultural counter-revolution backfire on them. You made this bed over decades of efforts to mobilize cultural conservatives, boys; you have no one but yourselves to blame if it turns out a majority of Americans decide you have gone around the bend.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.