Published April 10, 2015
According to media reports, on Sunday Hillary Clinton will announce she is running for president. That hardly comes as a surprise, and for Republicans, it’s not anything to fear. Mrs. Clinton is hardly a formidable candidate. She showed that in 2008, and she’ll show it again this year and next.
Mrs. Clinton’s husband is a man of extraordinary political talents; she is a woman of completely average political talents. She can come across as grating, programmed, inauthentic, and barely “likable enough,” to quote Barack Obama. She’s conspiracy minded and a fabulist. Her last presidential campaign was badly mismanaged. Her public career has been characterized by secrecy and ethical violations, including her outrageous (and lawless) conduct surrounding the withholding and deletion of her emails as Secretary of State. She is also likely to be the nominee of a party that is utterly intellectually exhausted. And for good measure, she was the key foreign policy figure in what is arguably the worst foreign policy administration in American history.
That said, Mrs. Clinton knows how to raise money, she is unlikely to face a serious primary challenger, her party has won five of the last six popular votes in presidential elections, and (unlike her husband) she is disciplined. And because she is a woman, electing her would make Mrs. Clinton a historic figure in a way that Barack Obama was on race. The political potency of that should not be underestimated.
As the Clinton campaign is about to begin, then, here’s a prediction: She, her team, and her party will obsess on cultural issues and attempt to divide the nation around them to a degree we have never quite seen before. She’ll do this both because she is a liberal woman and because she has very little to say on economic and foreign policy matters. Mrs. Clinton will go into this election believing the “culture wars” to be the best and safest political ground for her. She will portray Republicans as engaged in a “war on women” in such a way that past efforts will look like a walk in the park. The distortions, mob mentality, and smear campaign that characterized the reaction of the left to the Indiana version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (the federal version of which Bill Clinton signed into law) will be amplified by a factor of a hundred. If Hillary Clinton could talk about contraception, abortion, evolution, same sex marriage, and equal pay for equal work every day between now and November 2016, she would.
The 2010s is not the 1970s or 1980s, when focusing on cultural issues and symbols helped the GOP. As National Journal’s Ron Brownstein has written
While Republicans took the offense on most cultural arguments through the late 20th century, now Democrats from Obama on down are mostly pressing these issues, confident that they represent an expanding majority of public opinion.
Veteran pollster Stanley B. Greenberg captures this almost unprecedented Democratic assurance when he declares flatly: “Republicans are on the losing side of all of these trends.”
This certainly doesn’t mean the Republican nominee should become a social liberal. Nor does it mean the Republican standard-bearer can’t blunt these attacks or even reframe some of them in ways that might work to his advantage. (I’ll deal with this in a later post, one that focuses on the encouraging progress that’s been made on the issue of abortion.) But it will require a candidate who can defend moral truths, traditions, and basic rights (like religious liberty) in a way that is perceived by voters as principled and gracious rather than aggressive and judgmental. They need to be seen as promoting the human good and defending human dignity rather than as Old Testament prophets lamenting a lost way of life. Warning Americans that they are slouching toward Gomorrah won’t work and it shouldn’t be tried.
I’ve written elsewhere that if evangelical Christians are looking for a model of cultural engagement, they should look to Pope Francis rather than Franklin Graham. Republicans might consider doing something similar. The degree to which Francis has favorably altered the perception of the institution he represents — not by changing doctrine but by acting and speaking in a way characterized by grace and genuine human sympathy — is remarkable.
Most Republicans, eager to focus on economics and foreign policy, will want to avoid cultural issues. To the degree they can, they probably should. But know this, too: Hillary Clinton and a compliant press won’t allow them to entirely sidestep this conversation. Which means they better start preparing for it now.
Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.