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Today’s Gallup poll on The First Hundred Days suggests that Obama has shrunk his religion gap. Whereas 41 percent of weekly worship attenders and 61 percent of seldom or never attenders supported him just before the election, now the numbers are 69  57 percent and 57 69 percent respectively. Thus the gap between the two groups has narrowed from 20 points to 12 points. Since Obama has improved his numbers markedly with both groups, the best way to understand this is to say that of those who didn’t support him six months ago, he has gained 27 percent of the weekly attenders as compared to 21 percent of the seldoms and nevers. What explains the differential?

In my view, it’s that Obama has succeeded in calming the fears of religious folks sufficiently to enable a disproportionate number of them to support him for other reasons–mainly economic. (According to yesterday’s NYT poll, Americans support his handling of the economy by 55 percent to 24 percent.) He’s done this by reaching out to religious conservatives, rolling out pro-choice policies quietly, taking a couple of middle-ground positions (stem cell funding limits, abortion reduction), and putting off some hot button issues such as reversing the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. In a word, he’s so far managed to keep his social liberal base happy without scaring the conservatives.

Which brings us to Sen. Olympia Snowe’s lament for the Republican moderates of yesteryear, in the course of which she puts the blame for the GOP’s current woes on social conservatism:

There is no plausible scenario under which Republicans can grow into
a majority while shrinking our ideological confines and continuing to
retract into a regional party. Ideological purity is not the ticket
back to the promised land of governing majorities — indeed, it was when
we began to emphasize social issues to the detriment of some of our
basic tenets as a party that we encountered an electoral backlash.

is for this reason that we should heed the words of President Ronald
Reagan, who urged, “We should emphasize the things that unite us and
make these the only ‘litmus test’ of what constitutes a Republican: our
belief in restraining government spending, pro-growth policies, tax
reduction, sound national defense, and maximum individual liberty.” He
continued, “As to the other issues that draw on the deep springs of
morality and emotion, let us decide that we can disagree among
ourselves as Republicans and tolerate the disagreement.”

This analysis works pretty well for New England, where Republicans have not fared well as social conservatives. But it’s a pretty poor account of how the GOP prospered in the last decades of the 20th century as well as of what happened to Arlen Specter. It was through enlisting social conservatives in the Republican Party in the South and West that the party achieved its recent ascendency. And it wasn’t Specter’s pro-choice stance that cost him his party; it was his vote on the stimulus package. The opponent who was kicking his butt in the polls was Pat Toomey, president of the Club for Growth.

For all the huffing and puffing over abortion, gay marriage, and the like, the party’s real problem is its doctrinaire economic world view. Consider the sad case of Mike Huckabee. His initial appeal as a national candidate beyond his social conservative world lay in daring to challenge Republican orthodoxy on immigration and economic policy. He even made so bold as to refer to the Club for Growth as the Club for Greed. And he had his head handed to him by the GOP powers-that-be. Today, he’s a chastened, shrunken, party hack version of  his former self. Meanwhile, Obama is sitting pretty, eating the GOP’s lunch.