MANCHESTER, N.H. — At a conservative conference Saturday billed as the "unofficial start" to the 2016 Republican primaries, right-wing heroes Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Mike Huckabee competed for activists' attention with ready-made messages for the movement, replete with Obamacare-bashing, foreign policy tough talk, and more than a few NSA phone-hacking jokes.
Conspicuously missing from their pitches: social issues.
In a sign of just how marginalized the religious right has become within the Republican Party, not one of the Great Right Hopes positioning themselves for presidential bids at the New Hampshire Freedom Summit — an event sponsored by Citizens United and the Koch-funded Americans For Prosperity — tried to rally the crowd with condemnations of same-sex marriage, or abortion. And when reporters asked the prospective candidates about these issues, the replies that came back were feeble and vague, and studded with rhetoric about the importance of big-tent Republicanism.
Paul, who devoted a chunk of his speech to the need for softer criminal sentences for drug offenders, told reporters afterward that his light touch on traditional social issues is a function of his work to expand the Republican coalition. "I want a bigger party, not a smaller party. I want to win national elections, not lose them."
"I'm a social conservative," Paul went on. "I'm a believer in traditional marriage. I believe that, you know, there is something important to life, and it comes from God. But I'm also a believer that a lot of the way our country was founded was upon federalism." He argued states should be allowed to experiment with their own definitions of marriage, and declared, "I think there's an arrogance to having absolute litmus tests."
Cruz was sharper in his call to promote "a culture of life" in the country — he avoided the word "abortion" — but on marriage, he didn't go any further than Paul. "We have 50 states with different values, with different mores, and we would expect different states to adopt different laws. I don't think the federal government should be trying to force the states to adopt gay marriage in all 50 states. If the citizens of the state make that decision, they have the Constitutional authority to do that."
Even Huckabee, a former Baptist minister on whom many conservative Christians have pinned their hopes for capturing the nomination, has apparently been converted to pragmatism. Asked if he was concerned that his party's leaders were spending so little time talking about cultural issues, he shook his head.
"I think most candidates and potential candidates ... pretty much know where they stand, and they get that. If the questions are raised, people are forthright. But I think all of us understand the number one issue is getting our economy back on track," Huckabee said.
He added, "There's room in the party for people to have different viewpoints."
Huckabee's satisfaction with social conservatives politely keeping their opinions to themselves marks a dramatic departure from his 2008 presidential campaign, when he shouted his Christian conservatism from the early-state rooftops in an aggressive bid to outflank John McCain and Mitt Romney. But the approach is also in keeping with modern political realities: A recent Washington Post poll showed 59% of Americans support same-sex marriage, including two-thirds of people under 30. And while conservatives argue public opinion is shifting in their direction on abortion, Republicans have struggled immensely to articulate their positions on women's issues without embarrassing themselves.
Earlier this year, at the Republican National Committee's winter meeting, Huckabee himself made headlines when he said Democrats wanted women to believe they were "helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido." On Saturday the right's would-be standard-bearers were reluctant to spend much time talking about abortion or contraceptives.
Meanwhile, one of the religious right's old buzzwords has been extracted from its lexicon and applied new meaning. Throughout the event, speakers repeatedly referred to protecting and championing "values" — but they weren't talking about traditional marriage or unborn babies. Paul used the word in relation to the Bill of Rights, particularly privacy, as he railed against the NSA. Cruz employed the term in a lengthy lecture about Obamacare. And Greg Moore, AFP's New Hampshire director, drew applause when he said, "We know that New Hampshire values are summed up in four words: Live free or die."
In a brief interview after his speech, Moore said the speakers' lack of emphasis on social issues at the event was partly a function of the state's libertarian streak — it has never been the epicenter of social conservatism — but also said it was evidence that the core of the party's activist base is no longer made up of religious culture warriors — it's all about tea partiers' economic agenda now.
"I just think it's a reflection of where the party is, and where the energy is," said Moore. "I don't think you see anywhere the 2014 cycle is being driven by social issues. Fundamentally, leaders go to where the people are. These fiscal issues, these pocketbook issues, these health care issues ... A lot of the thought leaders in the party are just seeing that's where the votes are."
Of course, social conservatives still comprise a significant portion of the Republican base, and Huckabee, Cruz, and Paul all sought to reassure those voters that their personal views were aligned. But the prospective candidates' reluctance to talk about these issues at an event that had been explicitly marketed as a 2016 preview does not bode well for the religious right's agenda.
Presidential campaigns are frequently where cultural standards are prosecuted. President Obama's high-profile endorsement of marriage equality in 2012 — and subsequent victory — has been cited by many advocates as not only proof of the changing political tides, but as a watershed moment in and of itself. Some polls following the president's announcement showed a dramatic uptick in support for marriage equality among African-Americans, for instance. But there was little in the way of organized grassroots mobilization among conservatives in response to the president's announcement. Some on the right worry the Republican Party will be further ceding the argument without a vigorous defense of a social platform in 2016.
Iowa Rep. Steve King, one of the most vocal social conservative and often controversial lawmakers in the GOP, is among those alarmed by the trend toward passivity in his party. Standing outside after the conference, a small line of activists formed to greet him and express their fandom.
"I just don't think those things are compromise-able," King told BuzzFeed, when asked about his colleagues' willingness to sacrifice their social agenda to expand the Republican coalition. "If you believe life is sacred in all its forms — and I do — then you say that. If you believe in traditional marriage, then you say it. ... Republicans seem to be uneasy with that argument, and they want to avoid it because there's been such an attack on people who believe in traditional marriage."
But that kind of purism isn't widely popular in today's political climate. King said that when talking to contemporary Republicans, he's found it's more effective to eschew the "social arguments" against same-sex marriage, and focus instead on the "constitutional argument" for the rights of states to define marriage on their own.
Still, even King didn't appear very optimistic about that particular fight.
"I think we need to concede that there's been a real shift of public opinion on marriage," he said.
McKay Coppins is a senior writer for the BuzzFeed News politics team, and the author of The Wilderness, about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.
Contact McKay Coppins at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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