James Taranto has a fascinating interview with legendary supply sider Jeffrey Bell in this weekend's WSJ. It's worth reading in full, but here's an excerpt:
Social conservatism, Mr. Bell argues in his forthcoming book, "The Case for Polarized Politics," has a winning track record for the GOP. "Social issues were nonexistent in the period 1932 to 1964," he observes. "The Republican Party won two presidential elections out of nine, and they had the Congress for all of four years in that entire period. . . . When social issues came into the mix—I would date it from the 1968 election . . . the Republican Party won seven out of 11 presidential elections."
The Democrats who won, including even Barack Obama in 2008, did not play up social liberalism in their campaigns. In 1992 Bill Clinton was a death-penalty advocate who promised to "end welfare as we know it" and make abortion "safe, legal and rare." Social issues have come to the fore on the GOP side in two of the past six presidential elections—in 1988 (prison furloughs, the Pledge of Allegiance, the ACLU) and 2004 (same-sex marriage). "Those are the only two elections since Reagan where the Republican Party has won a popular majority," Mr. Bell says. "It isn't coincidental."
In Mr. Bell's telling, social conservatism is both relatively new and uniquely American, and it is a response to aggression, not an initiation of it. The left has had "its center of gravity in social issues" since the French Revolution, he says. "Yes, the left at that time, with people like Robespierre, was interested in overthrowing the monarchy and the French aristocracy. But they were even more vehemently in favor of bringing down institutions like the family and organized religion. In that regard, the left has never changed. . . . I think we've had a good illustration of it in the last month or so."
He means the ObamaCare mandate that religious institutions must provide employee insurance for contraceptive services, including abortifacient drugs and sterilization procedures, even if doing so would violate their moral teachings. "You would think that once the economy started looking a little better, Obama would want to take a bow . . . but instead all of a sudden you have this contraception flap. From what I can find out about it, it wasn't a miscalculation. They knew that the Catholic Church and other believers were going to push back against this thing. . . . They were determined to push it through, because it's their irreplaceable ideological core. . . . The left keeps putting these issues into the mix, and they do it very deliberately, and I think they do it as a matter of principle."
One of the more interesting points Bell makes later on is that the Tea Party's brand of populist fiscal conservatism is more friendly to social conservatism than one might expect, primarily because of an equal emphasis on natural law. It's an intriguing concept, and I look forward to reading Bell's book.