The 2012 election may become one of the most hotly contested elections of all time. With a resurgence of popular political activism, a costly and seeming endless war, a failing economy and a controversial president, the election is rich with opportunity and there are plenty of opportunists out there ready to grab for it.
One effect of this is that potential candidates are entering the public parade even earlier than usual and the stage for their beauty contest is the Iowa Caucus which kicks off the election. Likely candidates are looking for a message which will resonate in Iowa and give them a boost starting off the election.
Coming out of his victory in the CPAC straw poll, the first candidate to try to grab that spotlight was Representative Ron Paul (R-TX) who fired the opening salvo of the election with a long and convoluted statement opposing gay marriage and supporting the Defense of Marriage Act, addressed to the people of Iowa.
For those who have an overly idealistic view of the libertarian-leaning Republican, his latest statement on gay marriage is in direct contradiction to statements made early in the previous presidential race in an interview with John Stossel. In that interview Paul unequivocally stated his principled opposition to government definition of marriage:
“Stossel: Should gays be allowed to marry?
Paul: Sure. They can do whatever they want and they can call it whatever they want…they can’t make me personally accept what they do…as a matter of fact, I’d like to see all governments out of the marriage question. I don’t think it’s a state function. It’s a religious function.”
Yet Dr. Paul’s recent defense of DOMA in response to President Obama’s decision to stop enforcing it on constitutional grounds, takes the position that it is acceptable for state governments to define marriage and impose that definition on churches and that the DOMA’s federal level definition of marriage is also acceptable. He argues that DOMA stops “Big Government in Washington from re-defining marriage and forcing its definition on the States,” but the fact is that the act does impose a definition of marriage on the states, just one which excludes gay couples.
Gay marriage is a hot topic in Iowa. After courts there ruled gay marriage legal on constitutional grounds, activists targeted the state and got the legislature to pass its own Defense of Marriage Act and got the judges who made the ruling voted off the bench. This statement may help Paul in the short term with conservative Iowa primary voters, but it may cost him and all Republicans in the general election. This starts the campaign off on a divisive message on a social issue which fragments the Republican party, taking a position which is poison with key independent voters.
It now seems that Paul has started a trend. This week likely candidates Sarah Palin and Tim Pawlenty joined him in opposing the Obama position on DOMA. Palin cleverly tried to transfer the blame for DOMA to Democrats while still supporting it:
“I have always believed that marriage is between one man and one woman. Like the majority of Americans, I support the Defense of Marriage Act and find it appalling that the Obama administration decided not to defend this federal law which was enacted with broad bipartisan support and signed into law by a Democrat president.”
It now seems quite likely that other Republican candidates will be encouraged to follow this same strategy and play up divisive social issues like gay marriage in the primary. This presumably seems advantageous to them going into a primary with a large field of candidates, but what is winning that primary worth if by moving to the right on social issues they cost whoever ends up winning the Republican nomination key votes in the general election?
Their strategy is making the entire party look more radical on social issues than it really is. Polling shows that 59% of Republicans support gay marriage or civil unions. The numbers may be less favorable in Iowa, but those who put gay marriage on the front burner may even be weakening themselves in the primary in other states. It is also a risky face for the party to present to independent voters who support gay marriage or legal civil unions by a large 73% majority. To win in 2012 the Republican nominee will need every independent vote he can get and losing half or more of them over radicalism on social issues is a formula for defeat.
It’s also drawing inevitable criticism from the media and the political left and gives opportunistic social conservatives a legitimacy and a level of influence which they really don’t merit. This early move essentially forces the whole party to the right on secondary issues while distracting from a more effective pro-jobs, pro-growth and small government message which has broad appeal. Down the road when the eventual Republican nominee wants to run on important issues of national policy the result of these choices in Iowa will be that he will have to defend the unappealing positions which the party and its candidates took on these divisive issues early in the election.
Some candidates like gay Republican Fred Karger and the strongly principled Gary Johnson may be able to stand apart from the taint of the Iowa campaign, but Karger appears to be skipping Iowa entirely and Johnson will likely be shooting for the anonymity of the middle of the pack and saving his efforts for later.
Beginning with his speech at CPAC, Governor Mitch Daniels has worked hard to separate himself from the religious right and publicly push for a truce on social issues to keep his campaign viable on a national level. His statements have touched off a backlash from social conservatives whose answer is to promote their issues even more aggressively. The result of this disagreement may well be a split within the Republican Party and when that division leads to defeat in 2012 the rift may prove irreparable.
It’s still early in the primary process, but the Republican Party has been set on what may be a path towards self-destruction. If candidates continue to follow the herd and pander to a divisive minority which does not have the best interests of the party or the nation at heart, by the time the election finally comes around, what looks like a real shot at victory today may well have already been thrown away. A party which puts its worst face forward by letting its most extreme elements set its agenda may not have much of a future.