POLITICS | NEWS ANALYSIS
As Left Wins Culture Battles, G.O.P. Gains Opportunity to Pivot for 2016
WASHINGTON — A cascade of events suggests that 2015 could be remembered as a Liberal Spring: the moment when deeply divisive and consuming questions of race, sexuality and broadened access to health care were settled in quick succession, and social tolerance was cemented as a cornerstone of American public life.
Yet what appears, in headlines and celebrations across the country, to represent an unalloyed victory for Democrats, in which lawmakers and judges alike seemed to give in to the leftward shift of public opinion, may contain an opening for the Republican Party to move beyond losing battles and seemingly lost causes.
Conservatives have, in short order, endured a series of setbacks on ideas that, for some on the right, are definitional: that marriage is between a man and a woman, that Southern heritage and its symbols are to be unambivalently revered and that the federal government should play a limited role in the lives of Americans.
Remarkably, some of these verities have been challenged not by liberals but by figures from the right.
The past week and the month that preceded it have been nothing short of a rout in the culture wars. Bruce Jenner, the famed Olympian, became Caitlyn Jenner in the most prominent moment yet for transgender people. The killings of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., at once renderedthe Confederate battle flag unsuitable for government-sanctioned display. And Friday's legalization of same-sex marriage nationwide elevated a community that had been consigned to the shadows for centuries of American life.
But even as conservatives appear under siege, some Republicans predict that this moment will be remembered as an effective wiping of the slate before the nation begins focusing in earnest on the presidential race.
As important as some of these issues may be to the most conservative elements of the party's base and in the primaries ahead, few Republican leaders want to contest the 2016 elections on social or cultural grounds, where polls suggest that they are sharply out of step with the American public.
The critical question is whether the Republican Party will embrace such a message in order to seize what many party officials see as an opening to turn the election toward economic and national security issues."Every once in a while, we bring down the curtain on the politics of a prior era," said David Frum, the conservative writer. "The stage is now cleared for the next generation of issues. And Republicans can say, 'Whether you're gay, black or a recent migrant to our country, we are going to welcome you as a fully cherished member of our coalition.' "
Of course, many of the Republicans running for president are keen to move on from the culture wars, but others, like Mike Huckabee and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, are already seizing on matters like same-sex marriage and what they call judicial overreach to distinguish themselves in a crowded primary field. And the conservative activists and interest groups that play an important role in the primary will not let any of the candidates simply move on.
"Our candidates running in a primary are put in a little bit of a box by the events of this week, but at the same time, it does change the landscape for the general election, which is a blessing," said Carl Forti, a Republican strategist who has worked on presidential races. "I'm glad I'm not on a campaign and don't have to advise my candidate on how to navigate those three issues this week, because the answers for the primary and the general are radically different."
Privately, some of the strategists advising Republican hopefuls believe the last week has been nothing short of a gift from above — a great unburdening on issues of race and sexuality, and on health care a disaster averted. Rhetorical opposition to the Affordable Care Act will still be de rigueur in the primaries, but litigating the issue in theory is wholly different from doing so with more than six million people deprived of their health insurance.
Collectively, this optimistic thinking would have it, June will go down as the month that dulled some of the wedge issues Democrats were hoping to wield next year.
"Whether the presidential candidates agree or disagree with the results of all this, it allows them to say these issues have been settled and move on to things that offer more of a political home-field advantage," said Tim Pawlenty, the former Republican governor of Minnesota.
While acknowledging that the country has become more tolerant and, in some ways, culturally liberal, many Republicans contend that America is still receptive to a more conservative approach on economics and national security. After all, the same week that highlighted the ascent of cultural liberalism also illustrated the limitations of economic populism, as organized labor was unable to block a measure giving President Obamaexpansive trade authority.
"There will always be side issues, but none of that will compete with people's primary concerns, which are the economy and who is going to be able to keep the country safe," said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster advising Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.
"We have been observing the deconstructing of America in the last six and a half years," said Tony Perkins, the head of the conservative Family Research Council. "The tolerance level has been exceeded."Yet as the 2012 presidential race demonstrated, the immediate demands of a Republican primary can outweigh the eventual priorities of a general election. And, given last week's events, conservative hard-liners in the coming Republican contest will be even hungrier for candidates to demonstrate that they are willing to employ all possible means to repel what they see as an assault on foundational values.
What outrages social conservatives is not only the narrow issue of same-sex marriage rights, but also what they see as a violation of religious liberties that they believe are intrinsic to the country.
When Senator Cruz said the past week had featured "some of the darkest 24 hours in our history," he spoke for those conservatives who believe the America they know is slipping away.
What is unclear about the wide Republican field is whether a candidate has yet surfaced who is deft enough to appeal to such devoted conservatives without going so far to mollify them as to scare away less dogmatic voters.
Of the well-financed candidates, Jeb Bush has done the most, on matters of race and marriage, to portray himself as a candidate who can appeal to a more socially tolerant country. Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who made his name on fiscal issues, has surprised some in the party by positioning himself on the right on cultural issues. Mr. Rubio has been more cautious, trying not to inflame primary voters while also speaking in a measured fashion to avoid harming himself if he is the nominee.
Yet even if the party's eventual standard-bearer can win the nomination without providing much fodder for Democrats to use in the general election, he or she will not be able to ignore cultural issues entirely. Self-identified white evangelical voters can make up as much as 40 percent of a Republican presidential nominee's vote.
That is what worries many of the party's strategists. "Some of our candidates will play to them and take positions that aren't helpful in a general election," Mr. Forti said.
And while a window may be open for Republicans to shift the race in a different direction, Democrats will do their best to keep the focus on subjects many Republican candidates want to avoid. Many of them, Hillary Rodham Clinton told Democrats on Friday night in Virginia, appear "determined to lead us right back into the past."