For 20 years, Republican strategists have advised presidential candidates to steer clear of "controversial" social issues. Favoring a disciplined focus on "pocketbook" priorities to reach upscale suburban voters, that conventional wisdom not only sounds appealing when the economy struggles, but also comes naturally to Mitt Romney, who personifies the party's alleged advantage on economic and fiscal matters.
Indeed, Romney is under pressure to name a running mate who reinforces his reputation for businesslike competence. Fearful of repeating John McCain's fate after selecting an unknown Sarah Palin four years ago, party insiders are pushing a short list of vice presidential hopefuls, including Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, all decent public servants with proven Washington leadership experience. Fiscally focused governors Chris Christie of New Jersey and Bob McDonnell of Virginia round out the list.
Romney, however, would be foolish to presume that a "double-vanilla" ticket — as columnist Michael Barone has called it — would translate into victory in November, or even have a prayer in the tony Philadelphia suburbs. The flaw in the party brass' strategy is that it ignores the inherent ties between social issues and the economic anxieties of the middle class.
As GOP political theorist Jeffrey Bell contends in The Case for Polarized Politics, the conventional thinking that staying glued to kitchen-table issues — particularly under a "big-tent" banner that marginalizes social concerns — can deliver the White House has been a losing proposition for Republicans in the post-Reagan era.
Bell cites the GOP triumphs of 1988, 2000, and especially 2004, when presidential victors skillfully addressed social-conservative themes, and Republican routs of 1992, 1996, and 2008, when the loser diluted social-issue differences with his Democratic counterpart.
Bell's analysis suggests that Romney needs a vice-presidential candidate who embodies the social issues every bit as much as the former Bain Capital tycoon does economic matters, a wingman who could counter President Obama's meme that the GOP doesn't care about the vast number of families who don't earn six figures and who play by the rules, but whose economic prospects have been plummeting for a generation.
No one could excel in this role or complement Romney better than Mike Huckabee. Like those favored by party insiders, Huckabee boasts all the credentials of a seasoned public servant. But, unlike the short-list talent, the former Arkansas governor has been fully vetted and tested, having survived the fire of a grueling national primary season.
Moreover, Huckabee would electrify the party rank-and-file much like Palin did in 2008. But unlike the erstwhile Alaska chief executive, charm would win over the news media, independents, and moderate Democrats. And his easygoing demeanor would help Romney gain traction with unmarried women and minorities.
Huckabee's greatest asset would be his "killing-with-kindness" knack for negotiating the enduring social questions that bosses of both parties wish would go away but that resonate with heartland voters and played a central role in Rick Santorum's remarkable second-place finish in the GOP contest. The gifted Southerner with working-class roots would be able to highlight the nexus between declining family demographics and a sputtering economy with a Ronald Reagan likability that neither Obama nor Romney possesses.
In particular, Huckabee could help the presumptive GOP nominee turn the tables on the "war on women" canard, the latest ploy of "adversarial feminism" that, as Bell brilliantly chronicles, has created a new fault line in American politics and society. That more fundamental polarization has little to do with differences between the sexes, races, or even the two parties. But it has everything to do with American elites in law, business, media, and academia who have waged war on the American way of life since the late 1960s.
In cahoots with the global left, their agenda of legalized abortion, no-fault divorce, and federal birth-control schemes — not to mention gender-based affirmative action that favors privileged career women against married mothers struggling to spend more time at home, and their latest project, same-sex "marriage" — has depressed family formation while supersizing unwed birthrates.
That social-liberation platform has never resonated with "The Real Majority," identified by then-Democrats Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg in their 1970 book of the same name as the key to the American electorate. And for good reason: Its legacy — from declining fertility to the high costs and social pathologies of the retreat from marriage — reversed the gains that made America exceptional in the postwar era, saddling the country with huge deficits, stubborn unemployment numbers, and a receding middle class.
Far from a distraction, these social issues relate directly to the economic indicators that are so important to Republican leaders. But by recruiting Huckabee, Romney would help the GOP stand with that "real majority," an approach that inspired Richard Nixon, paved the way for the Reagan coalition, and offers promise for a party seeking redemption in 2012.