AMAC Exclusive – By Seamus Brennan
In the months leading up to the 1992 presidential election, Democratic political strategist James Carville coined a famous and widely repeated slogan urging then-candidate Bill Clinton’s campaign staff to center their messaging around one issue, and one issue only: the economy. “It’s the economy, stupid,” Carville wrote on a whiteboard in the Clinton campaign headquarters. In nearly every election cycle since, politicians and consultants on both sides of the aisle have continued to invoke Carville’s battle cry. And as the GOP gears up for the 2022 midterm elections, several Republicans are once again embracing Carville’s words—but in 2022, the old political nostrum may not hold true.
Earlier this month, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan—a self-branded moderate Republican and potential 2024 presidential candidate—claimed Republicans should be “focused more on economic issues than fighting every social issue that’s out there.” The GOP, he continued, “ought to be focused on inflation and the economy.” Any focus on other issues, he went on, simply isn’t “smart politics.” Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, another potential contender for the Republican nomination in 2024, echoed Hogan’s sentiment: “I don’t like passing bills in a cultural war to fire up our base. That to me is not the way I conduct business,” he said in a recent speech in New Hampshire.
But 2022 is not 1992. Given Democrats’ all-out assault on traditional values and the American way of life, a single-minded focus on the economy—especially at the expense of major social and cultural issues at top of mind for many Americans—isn’t the winning strategy some Republicans might believe.
Economic issues will always be important to voters—especially in a period of economic turmoil such as this one. But recent state-level elections—most notably in Virginia and Ohio—demonstrate that voters are eager for a Republican Party that actively fights back against the left on key cultural issues.
For much of the last year, no cultural issues have dominated the political airwaves more than the rise of Critical Race Theory (CRT) and gender ideology in K-12 education. Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin’s victory last November in a state that Biden won by 10 points—which came in large part as a result of parents’ growing concerns over CRT and Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s insistence that parents should have no say in their children’s education—should serve as a clear sign for conservative candidates everywhere not to hide from the culture wars, but rather to embrace them.
J.D. Vance’s victory in the Ohio Republican Senate primary earlier this month further reinforces this strategy. Vance, who based much of his campaign on resisting the left’s “culture war against traditional values” and opposing CRT and gender ideology, won last week’s primary by a margin far wider than expected. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has signed a handful of bills taking aim at left-wing ideologies in the classroom and the corporate world has also enjoyed a surge in popularity and high approval ratings among Republican voters.
But no one deserves more credit for the GOP’s transformation into a party that fights confidently on cultural issues than former President Donald Trump. In the words of The American Mind’s Editorial Board, Trump had the courage to identify problems and crises afflicting everyday Americans at a time “when few others would.” But, they continued, discussion of these problems hasn’t gone away since Trump’s departure from office—and for good reason: “They have gotten worse, because the Old Guard doesn’t have solutions to them.” Trump’s message—the same message that led Glenn Youngkin, J.D. Vance, and others like them to victory—“is the way forward for this country,” and it is “the path the GOP will chart if it wants to win.”
Though some Republican elites remain insistent that the GOP should steer clear of hot-button social disputes and stick only to issues like tax cuts, it’s clear that rank-and-file Republican voters feel otherwise, and will reward candidates who fight unapologetically for conservative values. Moreover, the success of these candidates in general elections proves that cultural issues are, in fact, winning issues for Republicans.
Of course, the GOP’s heightened focus on cultural and social issues should not detract from economic and fiscal concerns entirely. America’s 40-year-high inflation, record-high gas prices, and the looming threat of economic recession under the Biden administration are serious concerns affecting all Americans, and it remains essential that conservatives put forward a vision to improve the nation’s deteriorating economic conditions. But focusing solely on economic concerns while CRT, gender ideology, and other corrosive forces run rampant and pervade nearly every corner of American life would be a grave political mistake—and would cost Republicans significantly at the ballot box.
Despite the notoriety and political success of James Carville’s campaign exhortation from three decades ago, times have changed. Today, voters want more than a singular focus on the economy—and Republicans would be stupid to think otherwise.
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