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Culture War and Peace

It's no big secret that one of the rising smart-money favorites for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination is Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. Matter of fact, back in January, when National Journal asked 109 Republican "insiders" to rank possible nominees in terms of likelihood, Daniels finished fifth, tied with Sarah Palin and well ahead of Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee. And at the same time, 111 Democratic "insiders" ranked Daniels fourth when asked about the most formidable prospective GOP candidate. And that was all before a slow but steady drumbeat of interest in the Hoosier, culminating in one of those long, hagiographical magazine profiles that often serve as the informal launching pad of presidential runs, this one by Andrew Ferguson for The Weekly Standard.

You can see the logic behind the Daniels-for-president enthusiasm. Virtually unknown among voters outside Indiana, Daniels has none of the baggage accompanying retreads like Gingrich, Huckabee and Mitt Romney, or even fellow-insider-favorite Haley Barbour, much less the lightning-rod Palin. He's a state official who has never had to cast a controversial vote in Congress, but also has DC street cred from his work in the Reagan White House and his stint as George W. Bush's first OMB director (where he exited before the inevitable gusher of red ink really exploded). He's very popular in a state carried by Barack Obama in 2008, and his state's positive fiscal record stands out sharply against a national landscape of state fiscal disaster. Moreover, as Ferguson's profile illustrates, Daniels has a moderately quirky but folksy personality that seems a lot more appealing than those of other, dark horses like Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota or John Thune of South Dakota.

Given the newly rediscovered monomania for deficit hawkery among Republicans, buttressed by Tea Party demands for smaller government now, Daniels looks like someone who can credibly wear a green eyeshade at a time when that's the sexiest look around.

But in the self-same Ferguson profile that exemplified the emergence of Daniels '12 buzz, the putative candidate himself (who has mastered a stance of disinterested availability for a White House run) tossed a little hand grenade into his own camp:

And then, he says, the next president, whoever he is, "would have to call a truce on the so-called social issues. We're going to just have to agree to get along for a little while," until the economic issues are resolved.

Predictably, Mike Huckabee pounced on the "truce" idea (or gaffe, or whatever it was):

"Apparently, a 2012 Republican presidential prospect in an interview with a reporter has made the suggestion that the next president should call for a 'truce' on social issues like abortion and traditional marriage to focus on fiscal problems," Huckabee said. "In other words, stop fighting to end abortion and don't make protecting traditional marriage a priority."

"For those of us who have labored long and hard in the fight to educate the Democrats, voters, the media and even some Republicans on the importance of strong families, traditional marriage and life to our society, this is absolutely heartbreaking. And that one of our Republican 'leaders' would suggest this truce, even more so," said Huckabee, a social conservative who is weighing another presidential run.

Christian Right warhorse Tony Perkins chipped in with his own more harshly worded condemnation of Daniels for talk of a culture-war truce:

We cannot "save the republic," in Gov. Daniels' words, by killing the next generation. Regardless of what the Establishment believes, fiscal and social conservatism have never been mutually exclusive. Without life, there is no pursuit of happiness. Thank goodness the Founding Fathers were not timid in their leadership; they understood that "truce" was nothing more than surrender.

Other, more sympathetic social conservatives, like National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru, wondered if Daniels had simply misspoken or overstated his focus on fiscal issues, but also warned him not to get carried away with fiscal-first rhetoric:

A lot of people will cheer [Daniels'] statement: Truces are usually popular, and most people see the economic issues as more important than the social ones at this moment. But I'm not sure how a truce would work. If Justice Kennedy retired on President Daniels's watch, for example, he would have to pick someone as a replacement. End of truce.

I also can't help but think of Phil Gramm's presidential campaign in 1996. Like Daniels, Gramm was an enthusiastic budget-cutter. Concern about big government was running strong in the years just prior to that election. Gramm had a solid social-conservative record, but consciously chose not to campaign on it; he famously flew out to Colorado Springs to tell James Dobson, "I'm not a preacher." That approach helped to doom Gramm's campaign.

Finally, the Washington Post's resident religious conservative Mike Gerson gave Daniels a chance to backtrack, and the Hoosier allowed as how cultural issues with a fiscal dimension, like the Mexico City rules (and presumably abortion funding generally), would not fall under any "truce."

Crisis averted? Perhaps; certainly many Republicans will be privately counseling Daniels not to make the same mistake twice, and he'd be smart to take advantage of the Kagan confirmation issue by blowing the dog whistle of determination to appoint "strict constructionist" judges. Meanwhile, he'll get some credit from the shrinking band of social moderates in the GOP, not to mention libertarians, along with secular MSM types whose skepticism of the Tea Party movement has always been tempered by their obvious relief at the sight of conservatives thumping not Bibles but the Constitution.

But it's worth noting that Huckabee's not the only 2012 possibility who is taking a different tack than Daniels on the culture wars. And indeed, the other candidate with a bullet next to his name of late, and in public polls rather than insider buzz (viz. a recent PPP survey of Texas Republicans, which placed him at the top of the 2012 list with or without home-state Gov. Rick Perry), is none other than Newt Gingrich, who seems determined to escalate the culture wars into a full-scale Clash of Civilizations.

The former House Speaker raised some eyebrows in May when his new, just-in-time-for-the-campaign book, To Save America, came out, with the unsubtle subtitle of: Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine. Most of the negative commentary involved his comparison of the Obama administration to Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and even on that assertion, he's only partially backtracked, according to a Fox News report:

Gingrich said that he stands by his argument that the "secular-socialist machine" represents as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, not in the sense of the immorality of those deadly regimes, but as a "threat to our way of life."

In the book itself, Gingrich calls this "threat" an "existential threat," a term most often heard in connection with Israeli fears of a genocidal nuclear attack by Iran. And he is very clear that he's not just fretting over debt or deficit forecasts, but instead is fighting an anti-religious threat to the essence of American culture:

[E]ven more disturbing than the threats from foreign terrorists is a second threat that is right here at home. It is an ideology so fundamentally at odds with historic American values that it threatens to undo the cultural ethics that have made our country great. I call it "secular-socialism."

The Left has thoroughly infiltrated nearly every cultural commanding height of our civilization.

Not much of a hint of any "truce" in that kind of talk, is there?

So which of these two conservative Republicans best has his finger on the conservative Republican zeitgeist, the green-eyeshaded Daniels or the crusading Gingrich? Will there be peace with the socialist infidels until the books are balanced, or total war until the secularist roots of the socialist "machine" are destroyed once and for all?
It's probably worth remembering where both of these men--and particularly the nationally-obscure Daniels--would have to begin any path to the White House: in Iowa.

This is not only a caucus states where social conservatives have always had a disproportionate influence (viz. Huckabee's astonishing 2008 victory over Mitt Romney, who outspent him a gazillion-to-one). It's also a place where conservative activists are more than a little obsessed with the goal of overturning the State Supreme Court's legalization of same-sex marriage, a process that cannot, due to the vagaries of Iowa constitutional law, culminate before 2014.

Here's guessing that a awful lot of Iowa Republican Caucus-goers won't be ready to smoke any peace-pipes with their secular-socialist--and in their eyes, "sodomite"--enemies real soon, and that Daniels will have a tough sell convincing them otherwise.