Ramesh Ponnuru raises some interesting arguments, building off a debate with Thomas Edsall from May. His original point was that "The relative social conservatism of the Republican party has increased over the last twenty years, not decreased."
Abortion has been the biggest of the social issues. For three decades, Gallup has asked Americans whether they think abortion should never be permitted, should always be permitted, or should sometimes be permitted. The results from 2005 do not look markedly more liberal than the results from 1975. So these polls give us no reason to think that opposition to abortion has lost political power, or is likely to do so.If this is so, then it's all the more ironic that abortion has lost political power -- not thanks to public opinion, but thanks to the maneuvering of the economic conservatives who have been consolidating their control of the GOP coalition. Abortion was one of the political pillars of the Republican party, and now the party is abandoning it altogether? Either the issue really has lost salience, or the GOP is undertaking a curious strategy indeed. I think it's a little of both, myself, but time will tell.
A society can simultaneously become more socially liberal and create new political opportunities for social conservatives. It is, after all, the liberalization to which the conservatives react.This speaks to why I think that social conservatism represents a stronger electoral future for the GOP than economic conservatism. Particularly so considering that the so-called fiscal conservatism embraced by the party's current opinion makers isn't really fiscal conservatism at all, but the weird cult of supply-side economics.
Now of course public opinion on an issue can change so much that the old conservative position is no longer tenable, and successful candidates can no longer take it. If only 10 percent of the population still opposes gay marriage in 20 years, it won’t be an issue then, either. When public opinion changes that much, however, the issues get redefined. A new conservative position emerges, more liberal than the previous one but less liberal than the contemporary liberal one. And this new conservative position sometimes has a lot of political power.