Best-known as a supply-sider who worked for Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp, Jeffrey Bell is building buzz for his upcoming book, The Case for Polarized Politics, in an interview with the WSJ’s James Taranto:

“Social issues were nonexistent in the period 1932 to 1964,” he observes. “The Republican Party won two presidential elections out of nine, and they had the Congress for all of four years in that entire period. . . . When social issues came into the mix—I would date it from the 1968 election . . . the Republican Party won seven out of 11 presidential elections.”

The Democrats who won, including even Barack Obama in 2008, did not play up social liberalism in their campaigns. In 1992 Bill Clinton was a death-penalty advocate who promised to “end welfare as we know it” and make abortion “safe, legal and rare.” Social issues have come to the fore on the GOP side in two of the past six presidential elections—in 1988 (prison furloughs, the Pledge of Allegiance, the ACLU) and 2004 (same-sex marriage). “Those are the only two elections since Reagan where the Republican Party has won a popular majority,” Mr. Bell says. “It isn’t coincidental.”

It was probably inevitable that some would apply these observations to the current GOP primary campaign. Matt Lewis goes so far as to suggest “Republicans may be better off if the election is about values instead of money,” implying that Rick Santorum is preferable to Mitt Romney.

As much as moderate Republicans and cosmopolitan conservatives might lament the resurrection of the culture wars (which were foisted upon us, and appear to have been rekindled once again by liberal overreach), they were electorally fruitful for the GOP.

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The trouble for Republican presidential hopefuls trying to make hay of a struggling economy is that, when times are hard, liberals can always out-promise and out-class-warfare their adversaries. Thus, national elections that focus instead on foreign policy or cultural issues have tended to skew more favorably to the GOP.

One could argue that times have changed — that postmodern Americans are no longer interested in preserving traditional American values — that we’re all too sophisticated or too civilized to care. I would say two things: First, prove it. Second, while today’s voters may be too sophisticated to fall for cheap “family values” pandering, I do not for one minute believe the vast majority of Americans have suddenly turned up their noses at sincere efforts to preserve a just and moral society.

I will reserve judgment on Bell’s book until I read it. Moreover, the world is not a controlled experiment, thus “proving” the issue either way is not truly possible. However, there are a number of potential problems with the narrative of social conservatism suggested by these pieces.

Bell’s thesis seems based on the standard “Southern Strategy” narrative. However, Sean Trende makes a fairly convincing argument in his new book, The Lost Majority, that the history of the Reagan coalition may be the history of the Eisenhower coalition, as Moe Lane summarizes in his review:

The traditional liberal narrative of the ‘Southern Strategy’ is that LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act in 1964, and then racist Southern Democrats switched over to the Republican party en masse. Only… they didn’t. As the author noted: voting patterns in the South began to shift a decade earlier under Eisenhower; continued with organization on the local level in the Sixties that started before the VRA’s passage; and then generally chugged along until enough older Southerners (who largely remained stubbornly Democratic) died of old age, while the younger ones largely declined to vote for a party that had been calling them racist hicks for forty years (I am paraphrasing, obviously). But it’s easier to go with the existing narrative, in much the same way that it’s easier to go with the narrative that the House was under firm Democratic control for forty years… instead of the more complicated and ideologically-hostile one that Congress was divided up between Republicans, Democrats, and conservative Democrats who felt free to vote with Republicans on key issues.

Bell’s suggestion that social issues did not exist before 1968 will come as a surprise to anyone who has heard about racial segregation, school prayer, pushback against censorship (whether from the Hollywood Ten, Hugh Hefner, Allen Ginsberg, etc.), the marketing of the Pill, passage of the Equal Pay Act, or the movements created after the publication of books like The Feminine Mystique, Silent Spring and Unsafe At Any Speed. It is fair to say that most of these issues did not become politically potent at the presidential level until the 1968 election. However, it is also fair to say that as the Democrats became captured by the New Left in the period from 1968-72, that party was pushed out of the mainstream not only on social issues, but also on economic and national security policy. Thus, it is difficult to conclude anything more than the Dems’ social liberalism was one factor pushing voters into the GOP column at the presidential level; the same center-right coalition kept Democrats in control of the House for decades after 1968.

As for the GOP’s last popular vote majorities for president occurring in 1988 and 2004, note that the first occurred prior to the end of the Cold War, while the second was our first post-9/11 election. Lewis seems to have noticed, as he slips national security issues into his analysis of various elections. Another chunk of Trende’s book suggests that after the Cold War, Bill Clinton managed to assemble a coalition that his successors (particularly Barack Obama) tended to squander, which included mushy-middle suburbanites who are turned off by overly religious politics (although Trende does not stress the latter point in his book). Neither Bell nor Lewis mentions it, but I will note that by 1992, the Cold War was winding down, Bush 41 had broken his tax pledge, the deficit had become a bigger issue under GOP administrations and the GOP played up cultural issues at the 1992 convention. Similarly, by 2006, the mushy middle saw the Bush 43 GOP as big-spending, reckless on foreign policy, and conservative primarily on social issues. This was a losing formula.

I am not suggesting that Bell and Lewis recommend that formula. I presume Bell and Lewis are making the more modest claim that adding social conservatives to fiscal conservatives and national security conservatives was the ingredient that put the GOP over the top in presidential elections. Similarly, I am not arguing against social conservatism as part of the GOP platform, but noting the difficulty of maintaining an Eisenhower-Reagan style coalition in the post-Cold War era. (For another intriguing variation on the fragility of modern coalition politics, I would recommend Michael Barone’s piece on “open field politics.”) As Bell himself notes, Democrats who won post-1968 did so in part by tacking right — if only rhetorically — on social issues (although the mushy middle also likely remembers Clinton well today — even if wrongly — for having presided over economic growth and projected budget surpluses). This suggests that part of the Eisenhower-Reagan coalition can be picked off by the Democrats if they do little more than moderate their tone on social issues, particularly in years where the economics or foreign policy are not strongly advantaging the GOP.

As for Matt’s suggestion that a struggling economy would not significantly boost the GOP this year, one need only to look at a scatterplot to refudiate it. I agree that the GOP field needs to be ready to discuss issues beyond the economy. However, it is less clear to me that Santorum’s eagerness to aggressively champion social positions that will be just as eagerly mischaracterized and caricatured by the Democrat/media axis is the way to win the 7-10% of casual voters who at the moment are the swing vote in this cycle.

As Matthew Continetti puts it in his review of Bell’s book:

Would there have been an Age of Reagan without this great migration of the faithful? I doubt it. But I doubt, too, that Republicans would have had such success had they not also appealed beyond their base to tens of millions of American independents and suburban moderates who may not be socially conservative and who may be too busy with work and family and community to worry about Du Contrat Social. The conditions in which elections take place—the state of the economy, the conduct of wars, the public’s attitude toward the future—matter a great deal more than polarization. So do the personalities and qualities of individual candidates.

The challenge for Republican politicians, most of them social conservatives, is to find a way to stand for the values of the American Founding without coming across to the public as overly sectarian or extreme.

Anyone reading this as a brief for Mitt Romney may want to review some of my prior writings (here and here, for example). I agree with Matt Lewis that nominating Romney will turn the election into an exercise in class warfare. This is why Obama has two playbooks. But one of those playbooks has Obama trying to win the West against a candidate viewed as too conservative for mushy middle voters, following the examples of Colorado and Nevada in 2010. The most recent Fox News poll of swing states has Romney and Santorum running about the same in the Rust Belt (IA, OH, PA and WI), with Mitt doing better than Rick against Obama in Ohio. The same poll has Romney outperforming Santorum in the Dixie tier (FL, NC and VA) and especially the Rocky Mountain tier (CO, NV and NM). Even assuming (as I do) that social conservatives remain a key part of the GOP coalition, Santorum has not proven his particular style of social conservatism is the more winning variant this year just yet.

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