I have to admit I pretty much figured this year's Presidential election was foreordained as a Romney vs. Obama slugfest over the economy, with a predictable, if dismal, win for President Obama. And that's probably what we're still going to get. But how we get there, apparently, still matters.
If Romney has failed to exactly inspire the Republican base, the last couple of weeks haven't been entirely about him. What's changed, I thnk, is that Rconservatives have decided that they can't win on economic issues... and so they unpacked their favorite old trunk, the thing we often call "social issues."
Maybe it's age, maybe it's the sense that I've heard this song before, but my patience for euphemisms is pretty much gone. And so, I am tired of hearing about "social issues" when what people mean is "let's say awful things about blacks, gays and other minorities and see if Americans will give in to their worst instincts."
"Social Issues" is supposed to be about abortion, gay marriage, "family values" and the like, but really, it's about dressing up age-old prejudices and judgements about others without saying the ugly words. What's wrong with gay marriage? Something about men, women, tradition and procreation... since marriage equality opponents insist, all the time, that they don't hate gays. And what's behind the spate of new restrictive abortion laws and the brouhaha over Catholic charities and insurance coverage for contraception? Concern for life and religious freedom, not hatred of women or opposition to contraception, since that's what they keep telling us.
If there's a reason American conservatism has utterly failed to broaden its appeal, certainly in the past thirty years, it has a lot to do with just how negatve and unappealing their pitch has been. There's been virtually nothing positive that conservatives have had to offer, nothing but anti-this and opposition to that. Immigration, in fact, is a perfectly sensible issue that really does need reform, but it's become a "social issue" about the Mexican border and a specific group of undocumented immigrants because... well, "anti-Hispanic" isn't attractive, either.
It's not surprising, really, that conservatives have drifted back into this corner; an actual election about economic injustice and issues like health care would have been an interesting discussion, especially if the right had something to offer groups of people - especially in the working class - who have really been shafted, left and right, over time. But of course, Republicans have nothing to offer on jobs, housing, financial reform, or health care. All they have is an intense dislike for President Obama and anything he's done on those issues.
I'm not sure Mitt Romney really does have anything to offer, but to his credit, he's studiously avoided reverting to the social issues morass unless heavily pushed; it's not really the Mormon way (Orrin Hatch is a good example of this), and it's not Romney's style to appeal to people's worse instincts. So perhaps it's understandable that the "not-Romneys" of the primary season have found themselves forced to resort to the basest appeals to the base.
Of all of them, though, I suspect the real turning point was South Carolina and Newt Gingrich's win; Gingrich really had nothing to offer except boilerplate rhetoric built on right wing talk radio bromides, the familiar litany of how things are terrible and liberals are to blame for it. It's Gingrich who, rather skillfully, re-introduced the sham issue of insurance coverage for contraception. And Gingrich offered the kind of rhetorical cover that conservatives need to revert to "social issues" as their driving force - we're not clased-minded bigots... we're decent people looking out for America, and the Constitution.
Of course, Gingrich himself is a twice divorced Catholic convert who would, literally, say just about anything to win an election, and the dissonance between who he is and what he says just got more pronounced as his prominence grew. Rick Santorum, on the other hand, doesn't have quite that problem. Unlike almost any of the other conservatives who got big and flamed out, Santorum doesn't have to go to some of the ugliest places to sell his fealty to "social issues"; he's already been there (remember "man on dog"?). And so Santorum pitches himself as the populist voice of the unheard working (white) man (and we do mean men), and all of the "social" issues are covered as well.
I don't know if Santorum can actually ride this wave all the way to the Republican nopmination; it would be frankly hilarious if he pulls it off, but we (and he) can't possibly be that lucky. It's telling, though, that Romney and his team are, yet again, flummoxed by Santorum's success. He's the one thing they don't quite have an argument against: a true believer who thinks moderation is for wimps.
Either way, an election that revolves around the angry right renewing its worst calls against gays, pushing familiar virgin/whore/mommy lines about women's roles in society, selling familiar prejudices about blacks and hispanics... is an election held on familiar ground that they really can't win. There's too many of us, too few of them, and too many like me who are tired of listening to carefully chosen words meant to mask really hateful ideas and prejudices. None of it makes President Obama a better President, but it certainly makes clear the starkness of the choice. Which is a much easier election than the one about those pesky problems with jobs and housing and health care and such.