In his no longer quite so prescient- looking book What’s the Matter With Kansas?, Tom Frank described social conservative voters in tragicomic terms: “The trick never ages; the illusion never wears off. Vote to stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital gains taxes. Vote to make our country strong again; receive deindustrialization. Vote to screw those politically correct college professors; receive electricity deregulation.”
These days, however, social conservatives are finally reaping their reward for all those years of loyalty and devotion. It’s the muddled middle, the independents and drifting Democrats who stayed home in November or who thought they’d give the Republicans a try at “fixing the economy,” who turned out to be dupes of GOP bait-and-switch tactics. Vote for jobs, jobs, jobs; receive HR 3 barring insurance coverage for abortion. Vote “moderate” Mitch Daniels into the Indiana governor’s mansion; receive Planned Parenthood defunding. Faced with levels of unemployment not seen since the Depression, foreclosures, wilting schools, blighted neighborhoods and empty state treasuries, practically the entire Republican platform consists of cracking down on abortion. Well, I exaggerate; the GOP also wants to cut rich people’s taxes, get rid of public sector unions and turn Medicare into a voucher program.
Frank argued that antichoice rhetoric was just a tactic to distract the God-fearing rubes while corporate interests fleeced them. This was actually a popular view on what 1970s feminists used to call the male left: Oh, you women, letting your silly fears distract you from class struggle! (Interestingly, I’ve never heard this argument from a woman leftist.) But maybe the reason Republicans didn’t go medieval before—redefining rape as “forcible rape,” making women look at ultrasounds and listen to lectures from antichoice counselors, banning abortion after twenty weeks, threatening rape victims with invasive IRS audits—is simply that they hadn’t quite worked up to it yet: the party wasn’t firmly enough in control of the right bits of government, and the radical right wasn’t firmly enough in control of the party.
Today, with robust majorities in many state legislatures plus conservative governors installed in twenty-nine states, buttressed by the Republican House, the pieces are coming into place. But be careful what you wish for, Republicans: your hard-core social agenda may be a problem for you. At least that’s what a November survey from EMILY’s List, “Winning Back the Obama Defectors,” suggests. A telephone poll of 608 women who voted for Obama in 2008 but did not vote for their Democratic Congressional candidate in 2010 shows that these “Obama drop-offs” voted Republican or stayed home because Democrats “did not connect with their dominant concerns around economic issues,” not because they embraced the Republican Party’s agenda or the party itself. Only 19 percent had positive feelings about the GOP, while 51 percent had positive feelings about the Democrats. Nearly two-thirds want Obama to be re-elected. Fun fact: they really hate Sarah Palin. Only 12 percent have a positive view of her.
By now you are probably wondering why these women didn’t drag themselves out to vote for the Dems they claim to prefer so much. It’s a puzzlement I share. But the main point is that these women either stayed home because they felt neglected or voted for Republican pols who promised to address the nation’s economic woes and got themselves a pack of intransigent right-wing ideologues they disagree with on issue after issue—tax policies that favor the wealthy, privatization of Social Security, Medicare cutbacks, restrictions on abortion. Even the majority of drop-offs who went GOP oppose the GOP’s antichoice stance.
There’s a huge opportunity here for Democrats, especially progressive ones. After all, these women voted for Obama, seen at the time as the most progressive presidential candidate in decades. The question is, Will the Democrats provide the compelling message on the economy in 2012 that they failed to deliver in 2010? And will they stop drifting to the right on social issues? Imagine if Obama gave a speech robustly defending women’s reproductive rights. Imagine if candidates campaigned openly and consistently for women’s votes instead of taking their support for granted. “If you’re a 32-year-old single mom in Nevada right now, maybe underemployed, you need to hear that the Democrats are on your side while the Republican Party has chosen to put up a united front against women,” EMILY’s List communications director Jen Bluestein Lamb told me. “They were willing to shut down the government over that woman’s access to family planning, and they want to replace her mother’s Medicare with a voucher. It’s a cradle-to-grave assault on women and families.”
More good women candidates would help too. It’s a little hard to get revved up about the Dems when one thinks of how many socially conservative lazy-boys like Heath Shuler are serving in Congress—of the sixteen Dems who voted for HR3, the abortion insurance ban, only one, the devoutly Catholic Marcy Kaptur, was female. EMILY’s List is on the case, targeting bait-and-switch Republicans with solid progressives like Arizona’s Ann Kirkpatrick and New Hampshire’s Ann Kuster.
Let’s find out what happens when bait and switch meets stand and deliver.
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