The Republican Presidential Candidate Must Find America’s Moral Center

From a Wall Street Journal column by William A. Galston headlined “GOP’s Presidential Candidate Must Find America’s Moral Center”:

For decades after the upheaval of the 1960s, Democrats found themselves mostly playing defense on cultural issues. In recent years that’s changed. As Republicans have shifted to the right on some of these issues, the country’s moral center—characterized by moderation, decency and respect for others—has asserted itself against the GOP’s excesses.

That doesn’t mean Democrats have been given a pass for their own transgressions. When they have gone too far in areas such as crime (“defund the police”), immigration (“abolish ICE”), and restraints on speech (cancel culture), voters have rebuked them, and candidates have been forced to choose between ideological purity and political viability.

U.S. voters are looking for candidates willing to defend what most see as moral common sense and recognize that complex cultural issues can’t be reduced to a binary choice.

In the mid-1990s, 70% of Americans opposed legal recognition for same-sex marriage. A quarter-century later, 70% favor it, including most Republicans. Conservatives did themselves no favors by continuing to oppose it long after it became clear that the people had decided and weren’t likely to turn back. Legislating new legal restrictions is out of the question. If the Supreme Court reversed its 2015 decision giving constitutional protection to same-sex marriage, public regard for the court, which fell sharply after it overturned Roe v. Wade, would collapse.

After Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, some Republican leaders advocated a national abortion ban while others pushed for tough state laws. The backlash was swift and powerful, and deep divisions have emerged within conservative ranks. In the past week, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a candidate for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, went on national television to warn her party that a national ban is a political fantasy. At the same time, Donald Trump, suggested that the ban on abortions after six weeks that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had signed into law is “too harsh.”

Republicans are finding out the hard way that Roe’s trimester formula blended permission and restraint in a manner that more than 60% of Americans could accept, whatever their misgivings. If the party were smart, its candidates for national office would train their fire on late-term abortions, which are far less popular than those earlier in pregnancy; support the rights of states to make their own abortion policies; and refrain from advocating additional restraints on the availability of the abortion pill mifepristone.

Guns offer another example of emerging possibilities for moderate approaches. Although the people have long supported what they regard as reasonable restraints on gun ownership and use, the minority of Americans who fervently oppose such restraints have dominated the politics of the issue. But there are signs that the spate of mass shootings in schools, churches and public spaces is shifting the balance.

In Tennessee, which Mr. Trump carried by 23 points in 2020, Republican Gov. Bill Lee signed an executive order tightening background checks and began pushing for a law permitting judges to confiscate weapons from people deemed to be threats to themselves or others. In Texas, some staunch pro-gun legislators astounded observers by backing a measure to raise the age at which young adults could buy assault-style weapons. After the vote, one of them said that “shootings right now are just happening too often.” The American people agree, and they want their elected officials to do something about it. If President Biden were to propose a ban on assault-style weapons for persons under 21, he would find a receptive audience among swing voters.

Even on emerging cultural issues such as the treatment of transgender people, most Americans see the need for nuance. In a recent survey, 57% agreed that “whether someone is a man or a woman is determined by the sex they were assigned at birth,” and more than 60% say that trans women and girls shouldn’t be allowed to compete in sports with other women and girls. Yet supermajorities support laws protecting trans people from discrimination in housing, employment, education, healthcare and the military.

Another emerging issue illustrating this pattern is the debate about public education that has figured prominently in Virginia and Florida and has prompted a surge of grass-roots activism in much of the country. Americans reject the proposition that parents should have no say in the content used to educate their children, and they oppose exposing grade-school children to discussions of abortion, homosexuality and transgender issues. They are, however, open to such discussions for high-school students and oppose removing books on these topics from school libraries. Huge majorities support courses in U.S. history that talk honestly about our worst mistakes as well as our greatest achievements.

The candidate who best expresses Americans’ yearning for cultural moderation and common sense will have a huge advantage in next year’s presidential contest.

William A. Galston writes the weekly Politics & Ideas column in the Wall Street Journal. He holds the Ezra K. Zilkha Chair in the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program, where he serves as a senior fellow.

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