Mitt Romney backers are beside themselves. They cannot imagine how the former Massachusetts governor is within a whisker of losing the GOP nomination to Rick Santorum. His supporters see Romney – with his impressive accomplishments and impeccable personal life -- as Republicans’ best shot against President Obama. They emphatically do not expect independents to buy into the social conservatism preached by former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. Romney’s team may be in for a rude surprise: voters may be ready to hear a little social conservatism – especially the kind that doubles as fiscal restraint.
The recent skirmish over contraception funding under Obamacare allowed Santorum, a Catholic, to distance himself from the president, and to highlight his stance on various social issues. This is not quite the political quagmire that many imagine.
In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Jeffrey Bell explains why the Santorum surge is not only understandable but possibly a winning route for the GOP. He argues that Republicans have had a more successful track record since embracing social conservatism in 1968, winning 7 of 11 presidential elections. He further points out that Democrats, who have been elected to the Oval Office, including President Obama, have generally shied away from socially liberal positions.
Mr. Obama, for instance, said during the 2008 campaign he believed marriage was between a man and a woman – flying in the face of leftist doctrine. President Clinton argued for welfare reform and making abortion “safe, legal and rare.” Bell points out that George W. Bush carried 31 states in 2004 that could be described as socially conservative. Those states offer 292 electoral votes; winning requires 270 votes.
Bell’s observations remind us that although on the surface the United States appears to be increasingly accepting of liberal orthodoxy – including gay marriage, for instance – we are still a conservative nation. Far more Americans continue to describe themselves as conservative (41 percent) than liberal (21 percent).
These trends are confusing for policy makers and certainly for those running for office. One explanation is that while many of us have adopted more liberal views on how people may live their lives, we are also concerned about the breakdown of society’s institutions and the impact that such a collapse has on our economy. Last week we learned that more than half of children born to women under thirty are born out of wedlock. Overall, more than 40 percent of babies are born to single mothers; in 1960 that figure was less than 10 percent. Some 73 percent of black children are born to unmarried parents; for whites the figure is 29 percent.
While there is little stigma attached to single parenting today, that does not mean that people celebrate the collapse of the traditional family. Nor should they. Studies conclusively link children born out of wedlock to poverty and to higher rates of criminality, and society increasingly picks up the tab. U.S. Census reports show the poverty rate for unmarried parents with children in the United States in 2008 was 36.5 percent, compared to 6.4 percent for married couples.
The Heritage Foundation reports, “Being raised in a married family reduced a child’s probability of living in poverty by about 80 percent.” Even adjusted for differences in education level, the odds of children born to single parents ending up poor rise by more than 70 percent. Heritage says, “Overall, single-parent families comprise one-third of all families with children, but… 71 percent of poor families with children are headed by single parents.” These are stunning statistics. As our country grapples with ever-higher numbers of people not paying federal income taxes -- now up to 51 percent -- and a rising portion of the population dependent on government programs, buttressing the family becomes more compelling. The country is paying a high price for its increasing tolerance. How high? Heritage reports that in 2010, “federal and state governments spent over $400 billion on means-tested welfare for low-income families with children. Roughly three-quarters of this welfare assistance, or $300 billion, went to single-parent families.”
Numbers like these highlight the connection between social trends and our economic outlook. The decline in traditional families is especially acute, as Charles Murray describes in Coming Apart: the State of White America, 1960-2010, in working class communities. Highly educated well-off populations continue to marry.
Paul Krugman recently mocked conservatives for opposing government handouts, when red states actually receive more money from government programs than those that vote for democrats. It may be that without necessarily connecting the dots, those confronted by the collapse of the traditional family – and its high toll – have greater respect for the values that conservatives espouse.
In a recent speech to the Manhattan Institute, Murray advocated that the upper middle class needs to “preach what it practices.” He says they should advocate for marriage and cultural values such as industriousness, honesty and religiosity that he calls our country’s “founding virtues.” He’s not alone. To build up the family, the Heritage Foundation recommends promoting marriage in high-risk high schools and poor communities. They point out that young mothers want the best for their children; knowing the facts, they might choose marriage. They also sensibly suggest eliminating the many marriage penalties that exist in our welfare programs.
Such thoughts may be energizing the campaign of Rick Santorum. Some of his positions stem from his Catholicism; but more appear to represent what we might call “traditional values.” He advocates policies that “promote marriage, families and the high calling of parenting,” promising to “triple the child deduction and eliminate all marriage tax penalties. The family is the foundation of our country.”
The importance of the family is not the only issue -- others, such as prenatal testing or abortions, may be much more divisive. But support of marriage, at least, may play well for the six in ten Americans who say religion is “very important in their lives,” but also for those who consider themselves social liberals but fiscal conservatives. In the end, those positions may prove a contradiction.