The culture wars are making a comeback, but this time around, social conservatives find themselves in an unfamiliar position: playing defense.
Just look at the headlines of the past few weeks — gay marriage is gaining ground with landmark rulings in Vermont and Iowa; the Obama administration is putting immigration back on the front burner; gun control is on the table again in the wake of several mass shootings; and, as POLITICO reported this week, the vague prospect that the Senate will ratify the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child has some conservatives talking about a constitutional amendment to guarantee the rights of parents.
Any of these issues used to be enough to ignite the social conservatives and rally their leadership in Washington.
But there is no longer a sympathetic evangelical ear in the White House. There is no Tom DeLay calling divisive yet base-pleasing votes on the House floor. Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who was able to force Senate debate on gay marriage and flag burning in 2006, is long gone from the chamber.
That leaves social conservatives with minority-party amendments, obscure procedural maneuvers and Internet ad campaigns.
“Being powerless forces you to do things differently,” said Maggie Gallagher, president of the National Organization for Marriage, an anti-gay marriage group that has raised $4 million in 18 months. “You have an awakened and energized liberal base. … But the liberalism in power is energizing conservatives to stop bad things.”
As Christians head into the holiest weekend on the calendar, some social conservatives believe they are on the verge of a new awakening on the political front — one driven by grass-roots activists, disdain for the Obama administration and viral Internet campaigns rather than reliance on their political leaders in Washington.
“The more Democrats push on these issues, the more they face a backlash,” said Keith Appell, a Republican public relations strategist who has represented a wide range of conservative groups, including Concerned Women for America. “The conservative base is itching for a fight.”
But as social conservatives try to regain their leverage on gay marriage, gun control or immigration, they risk accusations of being politically tone deaf for pushing such issues while the U.S. economy remains in a crisis. When people are more worried about health care, job security and cratering 401ks, heated debate over who’s allowed to marry whom may seem out of touch.
“I think most people want relief from the divisive debates of the culture wars,” said Mark McKinnon, a former adviser to John McCain’s presidential campaign and GOP consultant. “Given the economic hardships most are facing, they probably view these arguments as old, irrelevant and a distraction. That said, I’m sure the cultural warriors are putting on their war paint and banging the tom-toms.”
Yet even as their causes are overshadowed by more pressing economic news, conservative groups are well-funded and can still tap into the anger of a very active population that is now shut out of the political conversation. The National Organization for Marriage, influential in the campaign against same-sex marriage in California, launched a $1.5 million ad campaign Thursday aimed at stalling gay marriage momentum in other states.
“Obviously they understand that appealing to people’s fears is a way to gin up money and rally the base,” said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights advocacy group. “When we get to a tipping point, that’s when our opposition is most vociferous.”
The Obama administration has also thrust immigration back to the forefront, with plans to craft a policy that could create a path to legal status for some illegal immigrants, according to a Thursday report in The New York Times. This issue, toxic for Republicans who want to liberalize immigration laws, is nothing if not fuel for right-wing radio hosts who want to rally a conservative base that now has little access to the levers of power.
Beyond the traditional hot areas, some conservatives see new fronts in the culture wars.
As POLITICO reported Thursday, Rep. Pete Hoekstra and 70 other Republicans have signed on to a parental rights constitutional amendment aimed at blocking the effects of the as-yet-unratified rights-of-children treaty. Conservatives increasingly see this particular proposal as a wedge issue.
And then there’s gun control. The mass shootings in Binghamton, N.Y,. and Carthage, N.C., and the cop shootings in Pittsburgh have sparked new debate on gun control, yet Democrats are not willing to engage the National Rifle Association this time around, realizing this issue is a loser on the political front in many moderate states and districts around the country.
When pressed on the issue in a Wednesday night interview with Katie Couric on CBS, Attorney General Eric Holder — who has a history of backing gun control — demurred. “No one's told me to back off,” Holder told Couric. “I understand the Second Amendment. I respect the Second Amendment.”
Christian conservatives realize that their opportunities will be rare since they don’t set the agenda in Washington, which is why they are seizing on developments large and small to spark their activists.
On Thursday, for example, House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (R-Ind.), tried to gin up opposition to President Barack Obama’s appointment of Harry Knox, a leader in the Human Rights Campaign, to the president’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Pence claimed that the appointment of Knox to a presidential commission “makes a mockery out of the religious beliefs of countless Americans.”
It’s not clear yet whether these little sparks of indignation will draw in a broader movement or will just rattle around a frustrated conservative echo chamber. But conservatives are doing whatever they can.
“You need to exploit every opportunity you have when you’re in the minority,” said Appell, the conservative PR strategist. “All you need is something to light the fuse.”