DES MOINES –- Social conservatives under pressure to allow the presidential campaign to focus on the economy are pushing back, arguing that the two cannot be disconnected.
As Rep. Michele Bachmann put it in a speech here Saturday: “Social conservatism is fiscal conservatism.”
The Minnesota congresswoman’s line, though an over-simplification, was echoed by numerous social conservatives in conversations with The Huffington Post over the weekend. Their argument is that many of the outcomes that have produced the nation’s economic crisis are, at their core, driven by moral deficiencies: greed, dishonesty, selfishness, cowardice, and the like.
“Go back to Jefferson and Washington. They said, ‘If you want this country to be great, you better first be good,’” said Bob Vander Plaats, the man who has led the charge in Iowa against same-sex marriage. “And so that’s where we’re at saying, ‘You know what, if you think all it is is over here on the economic side while you want all this other stuff to erode, you’re dealing with a house of cards.’”
Rep. Steve King, the Iowa Republican who organized a day-long meeting on Saturday that attracted presidential hopefuls Newt Gingrich, Haley Barbour, Herman Cain and Bachmann, said that “the economic component of this is important, but when it goes wrong it is because it is the byproduct of a society that’s getting off track.”
“We need to work on the economic issues, yes we do. But if we let our society deconstruct, to the point where it’s Godless and faithless and valueless, and it’s every man and woman for himself, collecting the spoils from someone else’s labor, we’re just simply pitted against each other. We’re not a unified people anymore,” King said. “It destroys us as a nation. I want to see a nation that is solidly bound together from a social construct.”
It is something of a change from the past, when religious conservatives often argued that America would rise or fall -- militarily and economically -- based on whether it was following the God of the Bible. God would bless the nation, or curse it, based on its faithfulness to him.
Many would still believe that. But they are moving away from a more fundamentalist argument toward a new, more practical message.
No matter how much social conservatives improve their messaging, however, the debate within the GOP grows contentious when it gets specific. The argument inside the party is not as much about whether everyone is on the same page on social issues -- though there is some of that -- as much as what the GOP’s points of emphasis should be.
Republican presidential hopefuls like Haley Barbour, Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney believe that abortion is wrong and that marriage should be between a man and a woman. But when leaders like Vander Plaats and King push them to talk about those issues more frequently, the White House contenders know that they are being asked to play with political fire.
Many independents and Democrats who might be open to voting for a Republican against President Obama in 2012 are likely to be turned off by politicians who spend a lot of time talking about same-sex marriage or abortion.
Barbour, the governor of Mississippi, tried to nudge Iowa conservatives to recognize this in his speech Saturday morning.
“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing,” Barbour told several hundred political activists and caucus-goers at the all-day event organized by King.
Barbour's speech was a litany of how Obama is wrong on policy: spending and budgets, health care, energy, and the size and role of government.
"The American people agree with us on policy," Barbour said. "We can't lose focus on that."
Barbour has spoken out even more directly on the need to stay focused on the economy in the past.
But Barbour was criticized by another speaker at the King event, Connie Mackey, president of the Family Research Council’s FRCAction PAC, who said of the governor’s “main thing” line: “Maybe that makes sense in Mississippi.”
Gingrich and Bachmann both said Saturday that social issues should not be shunted aside. But while Gingrich took some stands on abortion issues, he made no mention of marriage. Bachmann spent most of her speech talking about government spending and intrusion.
Bachmann said children need two-parent homes, but did not say anything about whether marriage should be between a man and a woman, and expressed empathy for single parents, noting that her parents divorced when she was a child.
Of course all the speakers on Saturday support traditional marriage and oppose abortion. But socially conservative voters and organizers want to hear them say it.
"Once we understand where a candidate is at on their core values, and we believe that they are convicted with their core values on life, on marriage, on separation of powers and the Constitution, on limited government and on free enterprise ... then we want to hear what their vision is," Vander Plaats said.
Iowans in the audience at the King event did not seem concerned about the rift between the wings of the GOP.
“It will work itself out one way or another,” said Bill Griffel, 67, a retired ad salesman and stock broker who said he liked former United Nations ambassador John Bolton and Barbour the most of any in the presidential field.
Bob Haus, a political operative who ran former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson’s Iowa campaign in 2008, said that because social values groups “have been in the trenches for 25, 30 years, they’re very professional and established.”
“It stands to reason they would be first out of the chute with candidate forums and big events,” Haus said.
He said that as the year rolls on, and a broader swath of Iowans become engaged in the campaign, candidates like Romney, Pawlenty and Barbour will move the discussion back to being primarily focused on how to get the economy back on track and help bring down unemployment.