The Conservative “Secular Problem” And The Palin Pick

Bill Scher

Gov. Sarah Palin appears to have successfully rallied the conservative rank-and-file. And she will probably give a good speech tonight. (Expectations have been set so low it would be hard to come up short.) But the pick itself tells me that after the congressional elections of 2006, the conservative movement has failed to come to terms with its “secular problem.” Last year, I observed that after all of the punditry insisting that liberals and Democrats have a “religion problem,” the exit poll data from the 2006 congressional elections showed the opposite: Conservatives and Republicans had a “secular problem:”

[According to Pew Forum exit poll data,] Democrats crushed Republicans among secular voters, broadly defined as those who attend church seldom (favoring Democrats 60 percent to 38 percent) or never (67 percent to 30 percent). Republicans retained strong support among those who attend church more than weekly. But among those who only go weekly — the larger portion of the religious vote — the Republican lead shrunk from 15 points to 7. In short, Republicans failed to be competitive among secular voters, while Democrats were at least competitive among regular churchgoers. And since the secular vote is roughly equal to the regular church-going vote, according to the last several national election exit polls, that means Republicans and their conservative base have a far bigger secular problem than their rivals have a religion problem.

The question I have repeatedly asked since then is: Will conservatives recognize their problem and make any changes to solve their problem? I argued last year that fully solving it would be a very tall order for conservatives:

…conservatives have to find a way to speak to the substantive concerns of secular voters: low wages, poor health care coverage, energy dependence, destabilizing foreign policy and the imposition of religious beliefs on others. Unfortunately for conservatives, they essentially ran Congress for the last six years. And voters rejected a conservative Congress that held down the minimum wage, neglected to reform our health care system, kept us addicted to oil, mired us in Iraq, but dropped everything to meddle in the private affairs of Terri Schiavo. Therein lies the rub for conservatives. It is conservatism itself — the belief that our government should not be put to work in service of the common good — that has turned off secular voters, and a considerable number of churchgoing voters.

While John McCain is very much a conservative, he is not a politician who is identified with and embraced by the right-wing religious activist community. In turn, he polls better than a “generic” Republican. His selection by a plurality of Republican primary voters showed an implicit willingness to tackle the secular problem, at least symbolically if not substantively. But the conservative movement is another story. When McCain came very close to choosing independent Sen. Joe Lieberman as his running mate, conservatives threatened McCain with a revolt. Why? Lieberman has a record of supporting abortion rights. Late in the game, the McCain campaign consulted with state party chairmen if they would accept a pro-choice running mate. The feedback was decidedly negative, but McCain still wanted Lieberman, and only flinched at the last minute. As the Australian news outlet ABC reported:

10 days ago Senator McCain was called into a meeting by several of his most senior and trusted campaign advisers. He was told if he proceeded to nominate Senator Lieberman, who is pro-choice on the issue of abortion, the conservative Christian base of the party would take the issue to the floor of the convention and try to overturn the selection. Senator McCain was told that without the base he would certainly lose the election. With little choice, he accepted the advice and re-opened the hunt in a scramble to find another running mate.

The Los Angeles Times similarly reports:

A Republican strategist with close ties to the McCain camp, however, said Palin was a last-minute choice after McCain had given up on his preferred pick, Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut, who addressed the convention Tuesday night. “He did so with such speed that they weren’t able to do the full vet,” said the GOP source, who did not want to be identified discussing the campaign’s internal machinations.

And Politico noted:

But as a former Democrat who supports abortion rights and holds a host of other conventional liberal positions, Lieberman would have spurred a revolt among conservatives already wary of the maverick-inclined McCain.

Never mind that Lieberman recently said he would now support Supreme Court justices like Samuel Alito who want to overturn Roe v. Wade, and that McCain himself—who would as president actually nominate justices—has made it abundantly clear he would back justices like John Roberts and Alito. More important than the outcome of the abortion issue, conservative religious activist leaders made it a priority to get one of their own—someone who has a long record of wanting to impose his or her own religious beliefs onto other Americans—on the ticket. And they succeeded. But suffice to say, that is not the way for conservatives to tackle their secular problem.

McCain appears cognizant enough of the secular problem to know that the best way to present his pick of Sarah Palin to the public is to portray her as a “reformer” who fought corruption and corporate interests, not playing up her opposition to abortion in nearly all circumstances, including rape and incest; her interest in banning books at the local Wasilla library; or her belief that the occupation of Iraq is “a task that is from God.” Yet the fact remains that the conservative movement has far from grappled with its secular problem. And by digging in their heels, they have made McCain’s ultimate task in this election season far more complicated.

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