When I ran for the Republican nomination for president in 1999 and 2000, I participated in four televised debates. In three of those debates, each of the candidates got a chance to ask another candidate a single question.
Picking names from a hat, I drew George W. Bush’s name in each of those debates. And each time, I challenged the then-Texas governor to pledge to nominate only pro-life justices to the US Supreme Court.
Bush demurred each time. Thankfully, President Bush ended up nominating (aside from the Harriet Miers debacle) two well-qualified and pro-life justices, Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Samuel Alito. Their presence on the court is arguably Bush’s greatest legacy.
I was persistent in raising this question because I believe that our courts have taken cultural issues like abortion out of the people’s hands by legislating from the bench and foisting their own values on the public. My question succeeded in placing, at least for a short time, judges and the sanctity of life at the forefront of the presidential conversation.
Can't marginalize social issues
More than a decade later, many presidential hopefuls are even less eager than Bush was to talk candidly about social issues – public policy as it relates to marriage, family, the sanctity of life, and religion’s place in the public square.
But that does not mean social issues won’t be important – even pivotal – in 2012. Even the most reluctant culture warriors among today’s presidential aspirants can talk about social issues by engaging in what I call “linkage,” uniting social issues with economic, foreign policy, and other concerns.
In his new book, “A Simple Government,” former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee identifies the family as the most important form of government and correctly asserts that when families fail, governments fail.
I don’t think I need to convince anyone that America’s current troubles are a result of not only governmental breakdown but also failing families and a decline of public virtue.
Forty-one percent of children today are born to unmarried mothers. Though government per-child educational spending soars, studies find our students struggling in many subjects (even in, as skyrocketing childhood obesity levels suggest, gym class!).
Marriage seems to be an afterthought for many young adults. According to a recent Pew Research study, in 1968, nearly 70 percent of 20-somethings were married. Forty years later, that figure had fallen to 26 percent.
And even though abortion rates have dipped slightly in recent years, nearly a quarter of all pregnancies still end in induced abortion, according to recently released statistics by the Guttmacher Institute.
Meanwhile, a 2010 Gallup poll found all-time highs in the numbers of Americans who claim no religious affiliation, believe religion is out of date, and say it is not a very important part of their daily lives.
It is easy to lose sight of the significance of these trends and statistics, especially as the Middle East continues to erupt and the economy continues to struggle, and as government at all levels focuses on debt reduction.
America’s political and media elites are particularly reluctant to address family issues. A 2010 poll found that while 83 percent of the “general population” surveyed felt “family values” issues were important, only 57 percent of “D.C. Elites” felt similarly. Some potential Republican presidential candidates have already made it clear that their campaigns would give short shrift to social issues.
Candidates who would rather address the public’s concerns, not those of the Washington Beltway, can do so by linking social issues to others issues voters care about.
When I asked George Bush to pledge to nominate only pro-life judges, anti-abortion advocates weren’t the only ones who listened closely to his answer. Talking about the importance of pro-life judges rallies pro-lifers, to be sure. But it also signals to other conservatives, libertarians, and others that the judges a candidate would nominate will apply the Constitution as it was written.
Given the dismal state of our public education system, every presidential candidate will have to discuss education reform. That conversation typically revolves around per-child spending, student-teacher ratios and, of course, teachers’ benefits.
But savvy politicians must also acknowledge that a student’s performance often has less to do with the number of other students in her classroom than with the number of parents in her home. Single-parent homes have been linked to increased risk of school dropout, lower grades, and more emotional problems in children.
A candidate who calls for defunding of Planned Parenthood is not just reinforcing his pro-life street cred. Because the abortion provider receives hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars a year and has been accused of covering up statutory rape and other crimes, it’s also a way to talk about fiscal responsibility and cleaning up corruption.
Some candidates hesitate to talk about values and virtue. But smart candidates link them to other public policy challenges. The financial crisis erupted in part because of pervasive greed on Wall Street and corruption in government. The erosion of values also contributed to the housing collapse, as borrowers lied on mortgage applications and politicians encouraged those without the means to buy homes they could not afford.
Candidates should not emphasize social and values issues simply for political or rhetorical gain. They should do so because real people do not live single-issue lives based solely on their pocket books.
Social issues get to the heart of our most fundamental institutions – marriage, family, faith, and life itself. Thus they are central to the questions people struggle with daily. Stressing social issues is not just good politics. It is also crucial to revitalizing America.