"It's the economy, stupid" was the slogan Bill Clinton used to bash George Bush in 1992. The GOP, which had planned to hammer the Democrats this year over the economy, may now switch to quite a different rallying cry: "It's the culture, stupid."
Recent economic good news hurts Mitt Romney's case that he is the right man to take on President Obama. Meanwhile, Obama's decision to ignite a culture war by making it illegal for Catholics to obey their own teachings on contraception could persuade Republican voters that Rick Santorum might me the best man to battle the president in November.
The notion of Romney as the most electable Republican has always been contingent on the economy being in the dumps. If unemployment is bad this fall and getting worse, history suggests that the incumbent is nearly a dead duck. In that case, the best GOP play is a safe, inoffensive Republican -- and nobody fits that bill better than Willard Mitt Romney. Also, Romney can make the argument (however tenuous) that his private-sector experience will translate into job-creating success as president.
But what if unemployment continues to drop? What if it's below 8 percent come October and the payroll numbers published Friday, Nov. 2 -- four days before Election Day -- show things getting better? History, in this case, suggests that Obama would be a strong favorite. New York Times pollster and statistician Nate Silver determined that the trend of unemployment numbers is one of the strongest determinants of an incumbent's re-election chances.
Imagine Obama presiding over an improving economy, bragging on his assassination of Osama bin Laden and successful withdrawal from Iraq, promising to reduce the deficit, and coasting on the media's adulation. Suddenly, a buttoned-down former businessman from New England doesn't have too many favorable contrasts to draw. Compounding the situation, Romney, having mandated, regulated and subsidized health insurance in Massachusetts, is hobbled in his ability to attack Obama's greatest policy weakness, Obamacare.
That's why Obama's decision to use his health care law as an attack on the Catholic Church changes the political landscape. Obama's decision to force all employer-sponsored health plans to cover contraception is an odd intrusion into both the employer-employee relationship and into the insurance industry. More damaging, his administration tailored a religious-liberty exemption so narrowly that the rule still applies to Catholic colleges and hospitals.
If this were an isolated incident, it might not mean much. But the contraception mandate is part of a pattern of Democrats using government to force religious conservatives to act against their will.
Obama took a firm stand in the budget fights of 2010 and 2011 for federal funding of Planned Parenthood, which amounted to forcing taxpayers to subsidize the nation's largest abortion provider. As a candidate, Obama promised to sign the "Freedom of Choice Act," which could force Catholic hospitals to perform abortions. The Obama administration has also tried to gut a legal principle known as the "ministerial exemption," allowing religions to set their own standards for whom they employ as clergy and what conditions they place on their clergy.
The liberal news media reserve the label "culture warrior" for religious conservatives like Santorum who inveigh against societal decline and try to curb abortion. But it's pretty clear that Obama and his fellow liberals are "culture warriors," too, and that it's the activists on the Left who are on the offense these days -- with government as their weapon.
So, we've got a culture war now, and for the Right it's not a war of choice, but of self-defense. Romney, avowedly pro-choice in past campaigns, hasn't quite been a good soldier in this struggle. Santorum is not only a seasoned culture warrior, the issues also play to his strengths.
Santorum lacks many of the traits of effective politicians. He doesn't have Obama's or Reagan's soaring rhetoric. He doesn't have Clinton's or Bush's gregariousness. But anyone who's followed Santorum on the campaign trail has witnessed his ability to entrance a room with his impassioned discourses on the sanctity of life. When Santorum speaks from the heart on matters of conviction, people listen.
Santorum's cultural conservatism is a turnoff to many voters, but that is probably exaggerated as a political weakness. Santorum and Obama officially agree on gay marriage (both oppose it), and Obama, who hasn't retracted his pledge to sign the absolutist Freedom of Choice Act, can hardly claim the middle ground on abortion.
During recessions, Americans have little appetite for cultural battles. But if things are looking brighter economically -- and if Obama continues his assault on religious liberty -- GOP primary voters may decide that a culture war calls for a culture warrior.
Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.