Was Mitch Daniels Right About the “Social Truce”?
Daniels ended up deciding not to run for President, which may be unfortunate, because it turns out he was right about the social issues truce. David Weigel points to a new Pew Research Center poll which shows, not surprisingly, that social issues rank very low on the things that voters are concerned about heading into this election.
Social issues may not be “very important” to as many voters, but this interpretation of the survey as it relates to Daniels isn’t right. The Pew survey doesn’t vindicate Daniels’ “truce” suggestion. Daniels seems to have had a theory that social issues were divisive and distracting, and the fiscal and economic situation was grim enough that these issues would have to be set aside in the next presidential term:
And then, he says, the next president, whoever he is [bold mine-DL], “would have to call a truce on the so-called social issues. We’re going to just have to agree to get along for a little while,” until the economic issues are resolved.
According to the original interview, we won’t definitely know whether Daniels was right about this until 2013 at the earliest, but it doesn’t look good for Daniels’ prediction. Daniels wasn’t just floating the “truce” idea as a trial balloon for the Daniels 2012 campaign that never happened. He was stating that the fiscal and economic situation in the future would require the President, whether Obama or a Republican, to ignore the “so-called social issues” in favor of agreeing to “get along for a little while.” Does that resemble anything like the political reality we have witnessed for the last two years? No, it doesn’t. Why we would expect that a Republican victory or Obama’s re-election would usher in a new bipartisan era of fiscal responsibility and healthy economic growth after the last two years is beyond me.
If anything, the Pew survey shows that a “truce” on social issues was irrelevant and beside the point. If social issues are lower priorities for the majority of voters, and far more people claim that the budget deficit and Medicare are “very important” to their vote, that suggests that a focus on these issues isn’t what gets in the way of addressing fiscal and economic problems effectively. The “truce” is a remedy to a problem that doesn’t exist. It’s because the “truce” was so irrelevant that I never quite understood why there was so much hostility to Daniels from social conservatives after he mentioned it, but I suppose it seemed like yet another example of unnecessarily dismissive treatment that social conservatives have become so tired of experiencing at the hands of leading Republicans.
Calling a “truce” on social issues wouldn’t facilitate entitlement reform, it wouldn’t close the partisan gap on tax policy, and it wouldn’t end the contentious disputes over the level and nature of domestic discretionary spending. As the arguments surrounding Paul Ryan’s budget show, fiscal debates have their moral and religious elements as well. Fiscal issues intersect with social teachings, which make them a different sort of social issues.
It’s all very well to understand that overwhelming majorities say that the economy, deficit, and Medicare are “very important” to their vote, but that doesn’t tell us anything about the kind of policies these people would support or the trade-offs (if any) they’re willing to make. If 66% are saying that Medicare is “very important” to their vote, that is not an endorsement of the sorts of significant changes to Medicare that Daniels and Ryan have in mind. It is almost certainly representative of a large constituency that is skeptical of or hostile to major changes to the program. The social “truce” is irrelevant because the disagreements over economic and fiscal policies are just as intense and deeply-held as disagreements over social issues. As the Pew survey shows, the former matter to many more voters than what we conventionally describe as social issues. If one wanted to craft some sort of “grand bargain” on fiscal reform, as Daniels obviously did and still does, one would need to have a truce on taxes and entitlements. Good luck with that.