Friday's Conservative Political Action Conference agenda looked like it was going to be dominated by social conservatives after the confab steered clear of the hot-button issues the day before.
But, it turns out even social conservatives are sounding a bit like libertarians these days within the GOP.
Huckabee and other potential presidential contenders who did tackle controversial topics like abortion and same-sex marriage instead framed them as problems of government intrusion rather than moral obligation.
"When the government begins to say 'it's okay if you have faith but you can only have this much of it because, when you have this much of it, it may somehow conflict with something government has passed, here's what I know: It's time for the government to scale back, not for people of faith to scale back. Religious liberty should be unimpeded in this nation,” Huckabee said in his speech, referencing the current court battle over ObamaCare's contraception mandate.
The onetime Baptist minister told The Hill afterward that he wasn’t hiding his opposition to gay marriage, but that his focus, like voters’, was elsewhere.
“People are generally more concerned about the economy and things. But it doesn’t mean that my position has changed. It just means there are some things on fire, you’ve got to use the water you’ve got for the fires you see burning,” he said.
That realization from many of the party's influential leaders could be welcome news to Republican strategists. Many have cringed that tin-eared comments on the divisive issues have turned their focus away from issues like the economy.
Huckabee, like others, has been burned before for tackling social issues.
After stirring controversy with his comments at the Republican National Committee's winter meeting by saying Democrats want government-mandated birth control because they believe "women can't control their libido," he stayed away from a similar attack on Friday.
This year, the safer bet was to focus on privacy issues, foreign policy and the economy — issues where Republicans believe President Obama and Democrats have significantly fallen short.
Sen. Rand Paul (R), true to form, spent his own speech locked on "liberty."
“Will we stand idly by and let our rights be trampled upon?” he asked. “Will we be like lemmings, rushing to the comfort of Big Brother’s crushing embrace? Or will we stand like men and women of character and say ‘we are free and no man, no matter how well-intentioned, will take our freedom from us’?”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who declared in his CPAC speech last year that his belief that "states should have the right to define marriage in a traditional way does not make me a bigot," spent most of his speech focused on foreign policy. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) focused mostly on budget and fiscal issues and party unity.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) touted his opposition to abortion but pointed to pro-abortion rights Republicans who’ve been allowed to speak at the Republican National Convention over the years.
“They’re the party of intolerance, not us,” he declared.
Others sought to reframe gay marriage as a states’ rights issue, one much more in tune with libertarian philosophy than socially conservative doctrine.
“We right now have a great belief not only in religious conscience and the rights of religious conscience when it comes to marriage, but a great belief in federalism — the idea that New York and California may have legitimated or recognized or decided that those states should sponsor gay marriage doesn't mean that Texas should be compelled by overreaching courts or anyone else to sponsor gay marriage,” said conservative radio host Michael Medved during a panel on whether social conservatives and libertarians can get along.
GOP strategist Ford O’Connell told The Hill that shifting away from moralizing and towards a defense of personal rights would help the party.
“Huckabee talking about an assault on religious liberty is something that comports with the libertarian mindset – ‘get out of my bedroom, get out of my mind, get out of my life,” he said. “It’s about moving forward versus pushing your views on someone else, which is a very big switch in terms of how you’re messaging. And it’s something people can agree with you on even if they don’t like your position.”
Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) was the lone exception to tackle gay marriage without framing it as a Tenth Amendment issue, and his speech fell flat with the libertarian-leaning conservative crowd as young activists crowded into the hall in anticipation of Paul's speech.
American Conservative Union President Al Cardenas told The Hill that shift in message was no surprise.
“If we can't unite social conservatives and libertarians, we can't win. The unity amongst folks with these differences is critical,” he said. “Both libertarians and social conservatives, for example, support Little Sisters of the Poor's Supreme Court Case [requiring them to provide insurance covering contraception] — libertarians, from the standpoint of government intrusion into individual choices, and social conservative because they don't feel that doing this is within the values system of being a good Judeo-Christian. People approach it from different angles but they both come to the same place.”
Cardenas said the lack of focus on gay marriage also made sense, framing it, like Medved, in Constitutional rather than moral terms.
“After the Supreme Court ruled on the issue and turned it truly into a 10th amendment issue, it's become less of a federal conversation and more of a state conversation,” he said.
O’Connell said it was a political necessity for the party to embrace a more libertarian tone going forward.
“When you bash same-sex marriage… it kills you with young people,” he said. Because as soon as they hear that they don’t care if you have the cure for cancer, they’ve turned off.”