GOP strug­gles for foot­ing as cul­tural ground shifts left­ward

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY PHILIP RUCKER AND ROBERT COSTA

co­ry­don, iowa — Mike Huck­abee— for­mer Fox News per­son­al­ity, Arkansas gover­nor and Bap­tist preacher — gath­ered with a mod­est crowd here in the back of Bread­eaux Pizza on his “Main Street Amer­i­can Fam­ily” tour and the floor to ques­tions.

The very first one set the tone. Jeff Hontz, 49, a Bap­tist pas­tor in town, said he has been anx­ious be­cause he sees “Amer­ica go­ing down the wrong roads morally.” God de­creed un­chang­ing stan­dards in Scrip­ture, Hontz ar­gued, but so­ci­ety keeps chang­ing— and fast.

“I sawa com­mer­cial this morn­ing about a trans­gen­der show, and ev­ery­body was prais­ing it,” he said, prod­ding the pres­i­den­tial can­di­date.

Huck­abee re­sponded by declar­ing that the stan­dard of all truth is the Bi­ble. Dis­tort­ing the laws of na­ture, he said, is akin to play­ing the pi­ano with­out a tun- ing fork — or bak­ing a cake with­out the proper mea­sure­ments of salt, flour and sugar. “You’re go­ing to have a dis­as­ter on your hands,” he said.

The ex­change il­lus­trates the vex­ing chal­lenge now fac­ing Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates and the GOP it­self: how to get in step

with mod­ern Amer­ica.

Across the cul­tural land­scape, the na­tional con­sen­sus is evolv­ing rapidly, epit­o­mized by this year’s con­vul­sions of celebrity, so­cial is­sues and pol­i­tics — in­clud­ing the ac­cep­tance of Cait­lyn Jen­ner’s gen­der iden­tity, Pope Fran­cis’s cli­mate-change de­cree and the wide­spread shun­ning of the Con­fed­er­ate flag.

Then came Fri­day’s land­mark Supreme Court de­ci­sion le­gal­iz­ing same-sex mar­riage. As rain­bow col­ors bathed the White House and other land­marks in cel­e­bra­tion, the en­tire field of Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates con­demned the rul­ing.

This un­even ter­rain is now a key bat­tle­field in the 2016 cam­paign, un­nerv­ing red Amer­ica and fu­el­ing in­tense de­bate within the Repub­li­can Party about how to nav­i­gate such changes — or whether to adapt to the main­stream at all.

“Most Repub­li­cans look at what’s hap­pen­ing and think we’re watch­ing a new stage of left-wing nut­ti­ness,” said for­mer House speaker Newt Gin­grich (R-Ga.). “It’s just sur­real.”

The GOP’s ac­tivist base wants its lead­ers to fight loudly for tra­di­tional, Chris­tian val­ues and sew to­gether a moral fab­ric they see as frayed, even shred­ded. This is es­pe­cially true here in Iowa, which hosts the first cau­cuses and where can­di­dates will not easily avoid pres­sure from the far right. Yet po­lit­i­cal sur­vival de­mands evo­lu­tion with pop­u­lar opin­ion.

So far, many con­tenders are giv­ing the base what it wants.

“We’re called upon not to be the ther­mome­ters that re­flect the tem­per­a­ture in the cul­ture,” Huck­abee said in Co­ry­don. “We’re called upon to be ther­mostats, which can read the tem­per­a­ture and seek to ad­just it to where it should be.”

Democrats are hop­ing for just this ap­proach. They ar­gue — as many Repub­li­can Party elites in Washington fear — that if Repub­li­cans don’t mod­er­ate on is­sues such as gay rights and immigration and be­come more tol­er­ant, they will be locked out of the White House. Asked how Demo­cratic front-run­ner Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton could mo­ti­vate vot­ers, sev­eral top Demo­cratic of­fi­cials said: The Repub­li­cans may do it for her.

“Repub­li­cans are go­ing to have to make in­ner peace about liv­ing in a same-sex mar­riage world,” said Pete Wehner, a for­mer ad­viser to Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush. “Our nom­i­nee can’t have ser­rated edges. Like it or not, any ef­fort to cre­ate moral or so­cial or­der will be seen as rigid and judg­men­tal. . . . Grace and win­some­ness are the in­gre­di­ents for suc­cess in a world where cul­tural is­sues are at the fore.” ‘Get with mod­ern life’

This is a pro­found shift for a party that a decade ear­lier won na­tional elec­tions un­der a ban­ner of so­cial con­ser­vatism. In 2004, Bush suc­cess­fully used his op­po­si­tion to gay mar­riage as a wedge is­sue in his re­elec­tion cam­paign.

“If these top­ics are the big ones in the gen­eral elec­tion — rather than the fail­ure of Pres­i­dent Obama and Hil­lary Clin­ton as his third term, for­eign pol­icy, and of course the econ­omy — we can’t win,” said Austin Bar­bour, a Mis­sis­sippi-based op­er­a­tive who runs the su­per PAC sup­port­ing for­mer Texas gover­nor Rick Perry. “We need to be sen­si­ble, log­i­cal and rea­son­able on the so­cial is­sues, but also make sure the de­bate isn’t en­tirely about them.”

The shifts to the left on so­cial is­sues may be re­in­forc­ing pes­simistic be­liefs among Repub­li­cans about the di­rec­tion of the coun­try. In a CBS/New York Times poll last month, 88 per­cent of Repub­li­cans said the na­tion was on the wrong track, com­pared with 63 per­cent of Amer­i­cans as a whole. Mean­while, 57 per­cent of Democrats said the coun­try was headed in the right di­rec­tion.

“When a young voter sees a Repub­li­can com­ing, many of them roll their eyes and won­der why they can’t get with mod­ern life,” said Ari Fleis­cher, White House press sec­re­tary un­der Ge­orge W. Bush.

The party’s busi­ness wing has been evolv­ing quickly on many so­cial is­sues, par­tic­u­larly on gay rights. Re­li­gious lib­erty mea­sures in In­di­ana and Arkansas that many saw as dis­crim­i­na­tory against gays drew im­me­di­ate back­lash ear­lier this year from lo­cal cham­bers of com­merce — not to men­tion cor­po­ra­tions such as Wal-Mart, the red-state re­tail gi­ant— prompt­ing re­ver­sals from Repub­li­can gover­nors.

“The coun­try is chang­ing, the cul­ture is chang­ing, the de­mo­graph­ics are chang­ing and poli- tics is chang­ing,” said for­mer Min­nesota gover­nor Tim Paw­lenty, now pres­i­dent of the Fi­nan­cial Ser­vices Round­table. “The rhetoric at the con­gres­sional level and with some of the can­di­dates tends to be a lag­ging in­di­ca­tor.”

In far-flung state capi­tols, leg­is­la­tures that be­came more solidly Repub­li­can dur­ing the past two midterm elec­tion sweeps are mov­ing ag­gres­sively with so­cial pol­icy de­signed to com­bat what con­ser­va­tive law­mak­ers see as lib­eral en­croach­ment from Washington. For in­stance, bills to ban abor­tions af­ter 20 weeks are mov­ing in sev­eral state leg­is­la­tures.

Politi­cians are re­spond­ing to the deep angst con­ser­va­tive ac­tivists voice in their com­mu­ni­ties. At a Huck­abee event Wed­nes­day night in Osce­ola, Iowa, Mary Klein, a 79-year-old school nurse, in­voked an ur­ban leg­end.

“Have you heard about the frogs?” Klein asked. “When you put a bunch of frogs in wa­ter and you heat it, they don’t re­al­ize the tem­per­a­ture is get­ting warmer and warmer and warmer. Then it kills them. Our coun­try is get­ting neu­tral­ized, at small de­grees at a time, and we won’t re­al­ize it un­til we’re al­ready sucked in and it’s too late.” ‘Kind­ness of con­ser­vatism’

Amongthe 16 de­clared or likely Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates, there is gen­eral agree­ment on tra­di­tional so­cial poli­cies, such as op­pos­ing gay mar­riage and abor­tion rights. The dif­fer­ences come in tone, em­pha­sis and coun­te­nance.

“We can share our views with­out sound­ing like aveng­ing an­gels,” said Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.). “It’s the self-right­eous tone that scares more than the views them­selves.”

Ma­jor GOP donors, es­pe­cially those in high fi­nance in New York, have been pri­vately quizzing lead­ing pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates on same-sex mar­riage. Some have been turned off by Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walker, think­ing the son of a Bap­tist preacher to be too stri­dent in his op­po­si­tion, and pre­fer­ring for­mer Florida gover­nor Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Ru­bio (Fla.) be­cause they sug­gest a more lais­sez-faire at­ti­tude.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), an even-tem­pered ally of House Speaker John A. Boehner (ROhio), re­called: “Ron­ald Rea­gan was aw­fully good at not back­ing off his po­si­tion while also never yelling or shout­ing or pound­ing the ta­ble. Per­sua­sion, per­sis­tence and re­solve— that was his magic.”

Arthur Brooks, pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute, said that speak­ing only to the base about is­sues of God, guns, gays and abor­tion isn’t enough to win. “Repub­li­cans need to rec­og­nize this and change the terms of the con­ver­sa­tion — or they’ll pay the price for decades,” Brooks said.

One likely can­di­date try­ing to soften the party’s lan­guage is Ohio Gov. John Ka­sich, who es­pouses what he calls “the kind­ness of con­ser­vatism.” A de­vout Chris­tian, Ka­sich looks to the ac­tivist pope as a model.

In Iowa last week, Ka­sich ad­vo­cated a path­way to cit­i­zen­ship for illegal im­mi­grants — a light­ningrod is­sue in the Repub­li­can pri­mary sea­son. When he en­coun­tered an un­doc­u­mented woman and her young son, Ka­sich said, “They are made in the im­age of the Lord.”

By con­trast, busi­ness­man Don­ald Trump railed against illegal im­mi­grants in his cam­paign an­nounce­ment speech. He said the United States had be­come a “dump­ing ground” for drug abusers, “rapists” and other crim­i­nals from Mexico.

On Thurs­day night in Iowa, for­mer Penn­syl­va­nia sen­a­tor Rick San­to­rum gave a fiery speech promis­ing to lead what he called a cul­tural bat­tle against the “sec­u­lar left.” He said, “It will be tough to stand against it, but we must.”

Democrats are ea­ger to por­tray Repub­li­cans as the party of Trump, San­to­rum and Huck­abee, as well as re­tired neu­ro­sur­geon Ben Car­son, Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jin­dal — all can­di­dates who proudly re­sist the shift­ing so­cial mores.

In a par­tic­u­larly par­ti­san speech Fri­day night in North­ern Vir­ginia, Clin­ton said Repub­li­can can­di­dates “seemed de­ter­mined to lead us right back into the past” with their re­sponses to the high court’s gay mar­riage rul­ing.

“In­stead of try­ing to turn back the clock, they should be join­ing us in say­ing loudly and clearly: ‘No to dis­crim­i­na­tion once and for all,’ ” Clin­ton said, adding, “A lot of Repub­li­cans may talk about hav­ing new ideas and fresh faces, but across the board, they’re the party of the past, not the fu­ture.”

Hous­ing Sec­re­tary Julián Cas­tro, a po­ten­tial Demo­cratic vice pres­i­den­tial can­di­date whose an­ces­tors em­i­grated from Mexico, crit­i­cized Trump in a re­cent in­ter­view for “plainly in­sult­ing Mex­i­cans and by ex­ten­sion folks who are the de­scen­dants of Mex­i­cans.

“He will be in this cam­paign in many ways the face of the Repub­li­can Party, be­cause he has higher name iden­ti­fi­ca­tion than al­most all of them,” Cas­tro said. ‘Tol­er­ance only goes so far’

Huck­abee, asked dur­ing an in­ter­view in Iowa how he might mod­u­late his lan­guage on so­cial is­sues, said he does not see any po­lit­i­cal disad­van­tage in stand­ing up for his con­ser­va­tive be­liefs, as long as vot­ers see them as gen­uine.

“I think peo­ple are deeply in­ter­ested in is­sues of moral­ity, char­ac­ter, but it all goes back to trust­wor­thi­ness and au­then­tic­ity,” Huck­abee said. He added, “The ques­tion is: Can I ar­tic­u­late my view, de­fend it, do it ra­tio­nally and in a way that’s in­tel­lec­tu­ally hon­est, with­out be­ing hate­ful or spite­ful?”

Along Huck­abee’s tour in ru­ral Iowa last week, vot­ers dis­missed any sug­ges­tion that the GOP needed to mod­ern­ize.

Af­ter see­ing him cam­paign Thurs­day morn­ing at the Dinky Diner in De­catur City, Tracee Knapp, sec­re­tary of the Ringgold County Repub­li­can Party, con­cluded that un­like party elites in Washington, “he’s not neutered.”

“I’m just sick of sec­u­lar things,” she said. “Ho­mo­sex­ual is­sues are on the tele­vi­sion all the time. I’ll be hon­est— we live on a farm. We have to have a bull and a cow to make a baby. We have to have a rooster and a hen. Maybe some Repub­li­cans need to come live on a farm.”

The night be­fore in Osce­ola, Tawny Waske, 49, was cel­e­brat­ing her eighth wed­ding an­niver­sary with her hus­band, Tim, at Nana Greer’s Fam­ily Ta­ble res­tau­rant when Huck­abee walked in to shake hands and an­swer ques­tions. She, too, fret­ted about cul­tural changes.

“It’s le­gal­ized here for gays [to marry], and we just bite our lips,” Waske said. “As a Chris­tian, we’re taught to love the sin­ner, not the sin. But tol­er­ance only goes so far.”

Waske brought up ABC’s prime-time spe­cial this spring on Jen­ner’s gen­der tran­si­tion.

“Is it him? Her? It? I don’t even know what to call it,” she said. “You know, don’t shove this down my throat.” Costa re­ported from Washington. Scott Cle­ment con­trib­uted to this re­port.

BRIAN POW­ERS/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Ohio Gov. John Ka­sich es­pouses “the kind­ness of con­ser­vatism” and wants Repub­li­cans to soften their lan­guage on so­cial is­sues.

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