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What Can Bill Clinton Teach Republicans about Winning in 2012?

In 1992, Bill Clinton made the phrase “It’s the economy, stupid!” a theme for his successful presidential campaign. Clinton focused on the one issue that the large majority of Americans agreed was the most important. Strategically, he made the right call: the economy had been in a recession for more than two years. People were craving for a recovery.

Clinton’s major achievement was to bridge the gap between himself and moderates who otherwise would disagree with him on social issues. Today, 20 years later, we are in a similar situation. We have had a bad economy for more than two years. People are once again craving for a recovery. The incumbent president has not managed to put the economy back on track, although Obama’s record is far worse than that of George Bush Sr. in ’92.

To win both Congress and the White House, all Republicans need to do is tell the story of how Obama’s policies have driven the economy into a thick muddy layer of big government and onerous regulations.

Despite this dream position, Republicans are showing disturbing signs of shooting themselves in the foot, nationally as well as at the state level. At a time when our state lawmakers need to spend every precious moment of legislative time and all their political capital on improving the economy, some Republicans are diverting focus to social issues.

There is nothing wrong per se with advancing pro-life legislation or protecting the family as the founding unit of a stable, free and prosperous society. But you have to pick your battles. At a time when the economy is sinking deeper and deeper into the quagmire of a European social-democratic welfare state, there are more urgent battlefronts to attend to. If the statists have it their way and America becomes a full-fledged welfare state, our traditional American social values will go the same way as our economic freedom. The controversy over forcing Catholic employers to pay for abortion is a case in point.

As an example of the consequences of diverting focus from the economy, consider the new Republican majority in the Virginia state legislature. Recently the Washington Examiner reported:

Virginia took another step Monday toward restricting abortions by defining life as something that starts at conception and giving fetuses the same rights as any citizen during a marathon legislative session in which Republicans pushed their most controversial measures. The House of Delegates gave preliminary approval to the so-called “personhood” bill a day before the General Assembly deadline to send legislation to the other chamber … During more than eight hours of debate, House Republicans advanced a litany of conservative initiatives ahead of Tuesday’s deadline, including bills that would allow the death penalty for accomplices in murder cases and create a voucherlike program that would give tax breaks to companies that pay for low-income students to attend private schools.

The “personhood” bill has since been declared politically dead. But the point about legislative priorities remains. Virginia has enough economic problems to keep the legislature busy. In 2009 the Tax Foundation ranked Virginia’s overall tax climate 33rd best in the nation, a notable deterioration from 2007 when Virginia ranked 22nd. As for business taxes, Virginia is also on a downbound train: its ranking for 2012 is 26th, down from 23rd a year ago.

On the jobs front, Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that Virginia lost 123,500 private sector jobs from 2008 to 2011 (September to September). During the same time, the state government in Virginia added 4,600 people to its payrolls.

Instead of attending to these economic alarm bells, Republicans in the Virginia state legislature spend their time pushing a social agenda that emboldens Democrats to reach out to swing voters at a time when their credentials with independents should be at their weakest.

To make matters worse, these unwise political priorities are now spilling over into the state’s pending U.S. Senate race. The two likely candidates for Virginia’s open seat (one of nine nationally) are Republican George Allen and Democrat Tim Kaine. So far, Allen has successfully exploited Kaine’s close ties to Obama and used the president’s economic-policy failure against the Democrat. But this advantage is now in jeopardy, as Tim Kaine is beginning to use the Virginia Republican conservative agenda against Allen. The Washington Examiner again:

The former Virginia governor and Democratic National Committee chairman is now trying to tie Republican George Allen to the divisive social agenda surging through the state’s Republican-run General Assembly in hopes of undercutting Allen’s support among independent voters. Virginia Republicans eager to flex their new majority status in Richmond are pushing a number of controversial measures on abortion, gay rights, guns and other initiatives shunned for decades under Democratic control. But every bill conservatives advance gives Kaine ammunition to use against Allen.

If Republicans can stay focused on the economy and Obama’s big-government agenda, they will mop the floor of the U.S. Capitol and the White House with their Democrat opponents. They will also make it easier for themselves to advance traditional American social values in the future.

Consider, again, the Bill Clinton example. In 1996 he had presided over an improving economy for four years and was able to win enough independent voters to get re-elected. He then turned his attention to some social issues he held dear, such as the creation of the SCHIP program (“Medicaid for kids”). By the same token, a Republican president and Congressional majority who can restore the American economy over the next four years will win a lot of credibility among independent and moderate voters. That will help them advance a social agenda that is pro-life, pro-religious freedom and pro family.

Furthermore, the path to a restored economy includes securing some of our traditional social values. Our economy will only improve if we roll back the welfare state, the conveyor belt of invasive government and radical social policies. Two examples:

  • Obama’s expansion of abortion-funding is tied to his Affordable Care Act – the defeat of ACA will, at least to some degree, restore the respect for life in America;
  • The campaign to legalize gay marriage is partly driven by the desire to give gay couples the same marital benefits as traditional couples get – by getting government out of the entitlement business, the gay marriage issue loses one of its main driving forces.

To paraphrase Bill Clinton: “It’s the welfare state, stupid!”

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