Conservatives are usually the culture warriors, and when they're not, they get into trouble.
When he was considering a presidential run, Indiana's Mitch Daniels suggested the party should focus on economic concerns rather than wedge social issues. The response from party faithful -- especially in Iowa, which was preparing for a "Values Voters" forum -- was fast and uncompromising, and Daniels' suggestion was dead on arrival.
It's those same conservative loyalists who are happiest to see Santorum's national surge, and who welcome the revived culture war his ascendancy promises.
While his populist economic rhetoric provides a nice contrast to Romney's Bain polish, and his earnestness stands apart from Romney's willingness to turn on a time, Santorum's real unique quality is his authentic appeal to the extreme right-wing cultural conservative. A Mormon upbringing should provide Romney the same cred, but his time as a cosmopolitan capitalist and as governor of the liberal state of Massachusetts has stripped it away from him. Santorum probably blushes at the word "strip," and that has its appeal.
Santorum has long seen the tide of LGBT rights leading to a recognition of gay marriage, which is why he fight so fiercely so early against any respect for gay lifestyle. And he was right: it was a slippery slope. Rights and respect for gay Americans have been increasing faster than most of us expected. For Santorum, not only is that a bad thing…it's also a chance to say "I told you so."
On the issue of women's health, it's not just about abortions -- if it were, he and so many conservatives would be in favor of access to effective contraception and thorough family planning. Rather, it's about a restoration to a time-gone-by. It's why he's made comments about women serving in the army -- another example of women leaving the traditional positions he imagines they should occupy. All of it -- from serving in the army to controlling their sexual experience -- distracts from the black-and-white world he clings to dearly.
He's not alone. Whether it's his Super PAC backer claiming women once put aspirin between their knees as a cheaper form of birth control , or the uproar over people having the right to comprehensive health coverage, there are others who want to wage this war with him. They are buoying him national polls against a politician whose wife has donated to Planned Parenthood.
But they aren't buoying him against his real rival: President Obama. Polls have shown the president's position getting stronger, and it's not just the rising economy. It's that many people believe they shouldn't be discriminated against because their employer doesn't like their sequel choices. It's because an increasing number of Americans think if people love each other, they should get married. And it's because most of us accept birth control as a pretty good thing.
The more the Santorums of the world fight for the world of yesterday, the more they are being left out of the plans for tomorrow.
President Obama's team has seen the public reaction, which is why they are willing to let the contraception fight go on - they are winning it. It's why by passing marriage equality, New Jersey Democrats will win even if Governor Christie vetoes the bill - equality is the winning side of history.
When the conservatives stick to abortion rights, they find an issue that truly divides. But as they're revealing, that's not their real goal -- they have a much broader, less popular crusade. Progressives are realizing that too, and rather than ducking this fight, they are bringing it -- challenging Prop 8, fighting for Planned Parenthood, and becoming the Culture Warriors on a terrain wide enough that it's in their favor.
Justin Krebs is a political organizer and writer based in New York City. He is the founder of Living Liberally, a nationwide network of 250 local clubs that create social events around progressive politics, and author of "538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal."
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