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July 16, 2008 3:27 PM

John McCain's social conservative dilemma

Posted by Richard Wagoner

University of Washington professor David Domke, an expert on the intersection of faith and politics, writes today about John McCain and the social conservatives in his party.

By David Domke

In 1992, the Clinton campaign adopted a mantra that became so famous it's now a wikipedia entry: it's the economy, stupid! In response, the Republican Party developed its own approach: it's the social issues. For more than a decade now - beginning with their landslide victories in 1994 - GOP politicians have unsheathed topics like abortion and gay marriage to bury Democrats.

In 2008, however, social issues won't work for Republicans. In fact, these topics might just sink the party's presidential nominee.

This is partly due to evolving attitudes among Americans. Consider the example of gay marriage. In mid-May, the Supreme Court of California declared state laws prohibiting same-sex marriage to be unconstitutional. Opponents immediately vowed to place a constitutional amendment on the state ballot this fall, but in mid-May a Field Poll found that by a 51-to-42 margin California voters support legalizing same-sex marriage - a sea change from a few decades ago. On the other side of the continent, the state of New York is moving toward recognizing same-sex marriages enacted in other states, while Massachusetts legislators Tuesday took the first step toward allowing out-of-state same-sex couples to marry there.

Public opinion is not the only changing dynamic. Just as important is who's leading the GOP charge this time around. When it comes to cultural warfare, John McCain is no George W. Bush.

In 2004 and 2006, conservative organizations pushed anti-gay-marriage legislation to rally the faithful. It was crucial, for example, in helping put Bush over the top in Ohio in 2004. Such an approach won't work for McCain, because whereas Bush has consistently supported amending the U.S. Constitution to ban gay marriage, McCain has strongly opposed such a measure. In 2004 McCain called such legislation "antithetical in every way to the core philosophy of Republicans."

McCain also faces a dilemma on abortion. During the 2000 Republican primary, McCain took on Bush over the GOP platform's pro-life position, which makes no exceptions for cases of rape, incest, or danger to the mother's life. McCain wanted to change the platform to include these exceptions, and he excoriated Bush for supporting the exceptions while refusing to seek to alter the platform.

Now McCain is open to exactly the same criticism that he leveled at Bush. He still supports exceptions to the pro-life position but will alienate the social conservative base if he tries to alter the platform. In a shot across McCain's bow, Family Research Council president Tony Perkins told ABC News: "If he were to change the party platform I think that would be political suicide. I think he would be aborting his own campaign because that is such a critical issue to so many Republican voters and the Republican brand is already in trouble."

And even if McCain somehow mollifies social conservatives on gay marriage and abortion, some hardliners will still be concerned by his support of embryonic stem cell research.

Last autumn, James Dobson, head of Focus on the Family, said that he would never vote for McCain. Now he's mulling it over, but wants something - several somethings - in return. In March Dobson wrote in the Wall Street Journal: "I have seen no evidence that Sen. McCain is successfully unifying the Republican Party or drawing conservatives into his fold. To the contrary, he seems intent on driving them away…. He still believes, for example, that federal money should be allocated for laboratory experiments with tiny human embryos, after which they would be killed when they are no longer useful."

McCain is between a rock and a hard place because he wants to maintain his appeal to moderates yet must draw in evangelicals. In 2000 Bush regularly won evangelical Protestants by margins of more than 50 percent in the Republican primaries - over McCain. This primary season McCain won the GOP nomination but still consistently lost these voters, who preferred Mike Huckabee in most instances.

This is no small matter, because McCain cannot win the presidency without this constituency. In 2006, Scott Keeter, director of survey research for the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, declared that "white evangelicals are approaching the same degree of political solidarity with the GOP that African-American voters accord the Democratic Party."

Not in 2008, not with Barack Obama rallying African Americans and not with McCain on the defensive with evangelicals. Today one presidential nominee is on the cover of Newsweek in a story about his religious faith and one is stumbling over what he believes about adoption by same-sex parents. Guess which one is the Republican?

In 2008 the Republican Party in 2008 is going to need a new slogan.

David Domke, a former newspaper journalist, is a professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington. His latest book, "The God Strategy: How Religion Became A Political Weapon in America," was published in January. He can be reached at domke@u.washington.edu.

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