Addressing GOP’s agenda

Indiana’s Mitch Daniels has been recognized as the nation’s best governor. He’s also a heckuva politician, but the kerfuffle over his recent comments on whether social or economic issues should be at the top of the Republican and conservative issues agenda proves that a poor choice of words can befall even the most adroit politician.

The conservative coalition that nominated and elected Ronald Reagan in 1980 continues to dominate the GOP today and consists of three overlapping groups: economic or limited-government conservatives; social and religious conservatives; and foreign policy and defense conservatives. Members tend to agree with each other on most issues, though their differing priorities occasionally result in internal catfights.

Although liberals continue to believe the difference in priority ranking will shatter the Republican coalitions, that hasn’t happened. The closest we came was in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Empire and before 9/11, when the economy was rolling and the future seemed rosy. Social conservatives who had waited patiently for action on issues near the top of their agenda began to ask for more than lip service from elected politicians. This persuaded George W. Bush to pay more attention to social than to economic issues. Economic conservatives like former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) complained that these issues were getting “too much attention” from a president who didn’t seem to care much about limited-government issues.

Armey agreed with Bush’s policies, but his priorities were different. Bush’s failure to listen cost him dearly as conservatives became disenchanted with an administration that favored more rather than less government and paid little attention to spending that spiraled out of control.

What Bush and his people failed to grasp was that the concerns of each of the parts of the coalition are both substantively legitimate and worthy of attention. Today the social and to a lesser extent the national-defense conservatives are demanding that politicians pay more attention to their priorities. Last year former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum (R) complained publicly that there is too much focus on economic issues at the expense of social and family priorities. Santorum was not arguing that today’s economic and fiscal crisis should be ignored, or that conservatives should stop worrying about either militant Islam or President Obama’s desire to emulate Europe (or at least Greece), but that while focusing on the immediate crisis, politicians should neither forget nor ignore issues like abortion and its moral and practical consequences.

Any politician who seeks broad support from the conservative movement has to recognize that the nation’s problems are economic and moral and that we face real enemies abroad. Politicians with skimpy records who in essence live by words alone can be judged simply by what they say, but those, like Daniels, who have a long record on economic and social issues must be judged with that record in mind.

Daniels, like his fellow Hoosier Rep. Mike Pence (R), has a sterling conservative record on these issues, but wouldn’t deny for a second that his roots are in the economic wing of the movement. As governor of Indiana, he’s cut state spending, regulation and taxes, making Indiana a magnet for new business and turning a state on a glide path to bankruptcy into one of the most financially sound in the nation. 

While he was doing all this, Daniels kept faith with socially conservative Hoosiers, earning the Indiana Right to Life endorsement when he ran for reelection two years ago. The group didn’t just endorse Daniels, but praised him as the first Indiana governor with “the courage or conviction to publicly support the sanctity of life.” His successful social and pro-family legislative agenda allowed Indiana to vault to the forefront of life-friendly states … all while focusing on the state’s economic and fiscal problems..

Much of the focus on Daniels’s rhetorical misstep is traceable to those who fear or hope that he might run for president in 2012. I have no idea whether he will or won’t, but whether he does or not is no reason to condemn a principled conservative with a virtually unassailable record simply because of a poor and easily misunderstood choice of words.

Keene is chairman of the American Conservative Union and a managing associate with the Carmen Group, a Washington-based governmental consulting firm.