The one lesson Republicans probably will not learn from Ken Cuccinelli's troubled campaign for Virginia governor is the most important: Politically, the "truce strategy" on abortion fails. If it is not abandoned, it will drag down the GOP.
Democratic charges of a Republican "war on women" are predicated on the GOP's self-imposed truce on social issues: Republican candidates pledge not to run ads on topics such as abortion. When social subjects arise, GOP candidates go mute, retreat and change the subject.
For an example of the truce strategy in action, recall the July 19 debate between Cuccinelli, a Republican, and his Democratic opponent, Terry McAuliffe, a man whose position on abortion is far outside the Virginia mainstream.
Debate moderator Judy Woodruff asked Cuccinelli whether he would push for tougher laws on abortion. The state attorney general responded: "I do not expect to use the political capital of the governor's office to be moving those pieces of legislation. My focus is on job creation and job growth." Translation? He doesn't want to appear to care about the issue enough to govern on it.
There is still time for Cuccinelli to turn things around, but the fact that someone with his conservative credentials speaks this way underscores that there is a conventional wisdom about how candidates ought to address, or avoid, social issues during campaigns. And Cuccinelli's standing in the race underscores that this approach is dangerous for the GOP.
The truce strategy demoralizes the GOP base and makes it hard for the grassroots to care about Republican candidates. Conservative candidates are advised to deflect or retreat when social issues are raised, and their refusal to speak clearly and hold the line allows Democratic candidates to adopt more extreme positions, energizing their own base and unleashing a flood of money at no political cost. Democrats are confident that their opponents will not make an issue of their positions. Republican candidates' apparent discomfort discussing such issues makes it look like they have something to hide, confirming to many voters Democratic suggestions that GOP candidates' positions are extreme.
Democrats see McAuliffe's growing lead in Virginia as evidence that the "Republican war on women" strategy works. The Quinnipiac poll released Oct. 10 found that McAuliffe had pulled ahead, 47 percent to 39 percent, after being statistically tied in late September. His gains came largely among female voters. "The 'War on Women' meme has been the top advertising issue for Democrats if you take social issues (14 percent) plus women's rights (12 percent)," National Journal reported last week in a story headlined, "Democrats Read Virginia as a War-on-Women Winner."
On an issue such as abortion, about which Americans are fundamentally ambivalent, victory depends on how "pro-life" and "pro-choice" are defined. Republicans' self-imposed silence allows Democrats to define pro-life in ways that help them politically. Thus, Democrats do not have to justify their positions on infanticide, late-term abortions or permitting unborn baby girls to be killed just because of their gender.
What will it take for Republicans to realize that this "truce" is one-sided? Rather than running ads attacking McAuliffe's positions, the Cuccinelli campaign's pathetically ineffective response has been to run ads featuring career women who look into the camera and say things like, "Ken's a nice guy. Really."
Meanwhile, a McAuliffe spokesman declined to comment this spring when The Washington Post asked the campaign whether the Susan B. Anthony List had accurately described the candidate's position as "support[ing] a platform of abortion on-demand at any time, for any reason, paid for by Virginia taxpayers." The campaign later said that McAuliffe "supports keeping existing Virginia laws on when abortions are legal." McAuliffe told George Mason University students that he would "support stopping any restrictions" on abortion.
Democrats campaigned on the truce strategy in 2012 and will continue to use it until GOP candidates come up with a more effective political response. The winning strategy would be to aggressively define social issues on Democrats' weakest grounds, to make them pay for their unqualified support of abortion on any grounds.
Steve Lonegan, the New Jersey Republican whose long-shot Senate campaign stalled when he supported the government shutdown in a blue state, nonetheless had the right idea on this issue. "What abortion would you make illegal?" he asked Cory Booker in a recent debate.
"I believe in Roe versus Wade," Booker said.
"Imagine aborting a baby in the eighth month of pregnancy," Lonegan said. "He supports that."
"That is not true," Booker replied.
Memo to GOP candidates: The best defense is a good offense. When you are being relentlessly attacked as an abortion extremist by people who support late-term and/or taxpayer-funded abortions, self-imposed silence about your beliefs and values is not an effective political response. Calling Democrats on their own extremism is the pathway to victory.