Will Values Matter in 2006?

The values-don’t-matter caucus of politicians and pundits had better hope it is right that conservative Christian appeals to social issue voters have and will continue to fall on deaf ears. They have staked a great deal of their political fortunes and personal reputations on this dubious contention.

Only a couple weeks after the U.S. Senate failed to pass the Federal Marriage Amendment the Republican-controlled House Judiciary Committee failed to obtain a simply majority on a measure to protect the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance from activist judges. The measure would ordinarily have breezed through the committee, but seven Republican members failed to show up to vote.

I believe this blasé attitude toward social—or, if you prefer, moral values–issues stems from an blind refusal to recognize the role values played in the GOP’s extraordinary landslide victory in 2004.

Respected conservative pundits Charles Krauthammer and David Brooks argued shortly after that election that the impact of moral values voters was a “myth.” Krauthammer wrote at the time:

If you pit group against group, the moral values class comes in dead last: war issues at 34 percent, economic issues variously described at 33 percent and moral values at 22 percent — i.e., they are at least a third less salient than the others.

Brooks sounded a similar theme:

This year, the official story is that throngs of homophobic, Red America values-voters surged to the polls to put George Bush over the top.

This theory certainly flatters liberals, and it is certainly wrong.

As I have noted elsewhere, Krauthammer was ambivalent about gay marriage in 2004 and opposed the Federal Marriage Amendment. Brooks supports gay marriage openly. So it would appear that their analyses flatter their own worldviews.

George Will, who is so clever about so much of our public sphere, feigns confusion when the word values creeps into the discussion:

An aggressively annoying new phrase in America’s political lexicon is “values voters.” It is used proudly by social conservatives, and carelessly by the media to denote such conservatives.

This phrase diminishes our understanding of politics. It also is arrogant on the part of social conservatives and insulting to everyone else because it implies that only social conservatives vote to advance their values and everyone else votes to . . . well, it is unclear what they supposedly think they are doing with their ballots.

Republicans acted in accordance with this prevailing attitude upon assembling the 109th Congress in January, 2005. Instead of voting on moral values controversies, the GOP agenda turned to privatizing Social Security and tackling illegal immigration; two issues that were nearly vacant from the political debate in 2004.

Neither of these issues, however, has helped Republicans. Social Security reform fell flat and disappeared from the national scene in less than a year. Immigration reform has split the GOP utterly. So with their backs against the wall and their names on the ballot again in just four months, Republican leaders in Congress have turned to their old reliable base: those “mythical” values voters.

But after perhaps having breathed so much of that “myth” exhaust, Congress can’t even pander with a whole heart. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist failed to generate enough support for the Federal Marriage Amendment despite the fact that on Election Day 2004, the 20 million Americans who voted on statewide gay marriage ballot initiatives chose to ban the practice by a combined margin of 2-to1. Frist also failed to drum up enough support to ban flag burning. Would these measures have failed so miserably if Frist had brought them up immediately after the 2004 election? I doubt it.

It is difficult not to look at the House Republican’s “American Values Agenda” with similar skepticism. Remember the Pledge Protection Act died in committee because of GOP apathy, not because “under God” has no public support. And what about the timing of this agenda? Twenty months after the last election but only four months before the next? Puh-lease.

Make no mistake. Traditional moral values enjoy tremendous popularity and support in America. Eighty-four percent of Americans reject the idea of removing “under God” from our Pledge of Allegiance. According to the Pew Research Center, “64 percent [of Americans] support teaching creationism along with evolution in the public schools, while only 29 percent oppose the idea.” A recent Gallup poll shows that 56 percent of Americans favor a constitutional ban on flag burning. And on and on.

Anti-values pundits and politicians fall back on the reassuring fallacy that while these values issues are popular with the public, no one really cares about them with any meaningful intensity. And yet a very real attack against these values is coming from the radical left and its judicial enablers; an attack that truly needs defending against, not merely exploiting for votes. Someday, this attack will dawn on Republican members of Congress and they will set about doing something serious to combat it.

Patrick Hynes is the author of In Defense of the Religious Right and the proprietor of Ankle Biting Pundits.

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