Mark Udall’s senatorial defeat might have been the sweetest victory for social conservatism on Tuesday. He organized his campaign around the theme that Republicans were hostile to women, and that his opponents would ban contraceptionand all of this with a side order of abortion extremism. Udall’s defeat by Cory Gardner (and the mockery Udall has received across the political spectrum) might indicate that the Democratic “war on women” campaign tactic has outlived its usefulness. Maybe it has, but social conservatives should be careful to distinguish between Mark Udall’s war on women campaign, and the more effective (though still overrated) war on women campaign run by Barack Obama in 2012.
The first difference between the two campaigns is that Obama carefully chose ground that was favorable to him, but from which his opponents could not easily retreat. Obama’s differences with Romney over the contraception mandate in Obamacare were real as a matter of policy, and Romney could not have backed off his opposition to the contraception mandate without alienating his social conservative supporters. Gardner largely neutralized the contraceptive mandate issue by coming out for selling the contraceptive pill over the counter. At this point, a shrewder politician would have moved on to something else, but Udall spent the rest of the campaign futilely trying to convince the public that that Gardner was going to ban contraception. Given that Gardner had a disciplined and well-funded campaign, this was never going to convince the swing voters that Udall needed.
The second difference is that Udall gave up the single greatest advantage of the socially liberal politician. The media that most persuadable voters consume is largely produced by socially liberal journalists and entertainers. Obama let his media allies do most of the heavy lifting on the social issues. Social liberalism’s greatest hits of 2012 did not come from a Barack Obama campaign speech. They came from journalistic feeding frenzies over events like Todd Akin’s rape comments (which for some reasonOK, we all know the reason) dominated the coverage of Mitt Romney’s campaign for days. This dynamic allows for social liberalism to take the offensive, while allowing socially liberal candidates to seem like reasonable people who only bring up social issues when they are forced to do so. By taking the lead in pushing the (phony) contraception issue and the (real) abortion issue, Udall didn’t just define himself as someone who is a social liberal. He defined himself as a social liberal one-note candidate.
Finally, Obama knew to conceal his abortion extremism whenever he knew persuadable voters were watching. Obama had the common sense to lie about his record of voting against extending legal protections against infants who survived botched abortions. In all of the 2008 campaign, Obama never looked more uncomfortable than when Rick Warren asked him about when a baby gets humans rights. Obama knew that his support for late-term abortion was a weakness, and the mainstream media knew enough to cover for him. Udall advertized his support of unrestricted late-term, partial birth, and sex-selective abortion.
The result of all of these differences was that Obama ended up looking fairly moderate as a matter of both policy and temperament, while Udall ended up looking dishonest, obsessed, and extreme. Udall ended up being called Senator Uterus even by liberal journalists. Even conservatives never thought to talk about President Barack Ovaries.
It is possible that the reason Obama and Udall ran such different campaigns was that they had different understandings of public opinion. The Obama of 2008 was coming at the very end of the Reagan Era. He seemed to have a sense that liberals needed to seem moderate if they were going to win swing voters. He came out against middle-class tax increases, said he now supported the mid-1990s welfare reform, and he made an effort to seem like an abortion moderate who struggled with the moral complexity of the issue.
The election of 2012 seemed to upend that logic. The dominant interpretation on the left was that we were now entering a new era of liberalism and that social liberalism was a winner outside of a few Southern backwaters. The tonal moderation of Obama’s campaigns was now unnecessary. Well, it turns out that, among swing electorates like the one in Colorado, that tonal moderation is still pretty necessary.
Social conservatives should enjoy the moment, but they should also prepare for the future. There might or might not be a future for the “war on women” branding, but social liberalism isn’t going anywhere. In the future, socially liberal candidates will be smart enough to let the mainstream media do most of their dirty work. They will be smart enough to pick fights on favorable ground, and they will work (in collusion with much of the mainstream media) to hide their abortion extremism. Those are the kinds of candidates and campaigns that are the most politically dangerous. I don’t worry about the next Mark Udall. The challenge is to get ready for the next Barack Obama.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.