Washington — Remember Pat Buchanan?
Actually, Buchanan, 76, is still around, offering conservative commentary on Fox News. But back in the 1990s, Buchanan twice ran for the Republican nomination for president, after stints as a White House aide in two Republican administrations interwoven with a career as a journalist and political commentator.
He didn’t win either time. But in a keynote speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention, he said, “There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war...”
Buchanan identified the battles of the day: “abortion on demand, a litmus test for the Supreme Court, homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools, women in combat units.” Buchanan’s address gained notoriety as the “culture war” speech, and that notion framed American politics for years.
Over time, it seemed as if the hostilities had eased — in part because some Republicans feared the aggressive right-wing stance on cultural issues damaged the party among independent voters who combine fiscal conservatism with social liberalism, and often hold the key to elections. But as the current contest for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination shows, several of those issues, or variations of them, remain flashpoints for conservative voters.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal ranks among the most vociferous cultural warriors in the 2016 Republican field. In an extended post on his campaign website a few days after the mass shooting at a community college in Oregon, Jindal blamed the nation’s wanton firearms violence on “cultural rot.”
Jindal’s call-out of the Oregon shooter’s absentee father attracted most of the attention drawn by the self-described “sermon,” but Jindal first pointed his finger at movies, TV, popular music, video games and the Internet as elements of “the root cause of all these evil acts.”
The theme is not new for Jindal: As far back as his first, unsuccessful run for governor in 2003, he decried Hollywood permissiveness. He has called repeatedly for a nationwide spiritual revival in his current campaign. And while he is not above opportunistic posturing in search of political gain, it seems safe to say that the Jindal children should not expect a gift-wrapped copy of Grand Theft Auto under the tree this Christmas.
Jindal is not the only Republican candidate to play the culture card, despite the potential downside in a general election. But the game now is the Republican caucuses and primaries that will decide the nomination, in which the voters are far more conservative that the electorate at large.
That’s especially so in Iowa, which hosts the first Republican caucuses Feb. 1. If form holds from past years, most of the Republican caucus-goers will be evangelical Christians.
Jindal has campaigned heavily in Iowa, spending more time there than all but one of his 14 Republican rivals: former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, of Pennsylvania, who came from well back in the pack late in 2012 to win the Iowa caucuses, a model Jindal hopes to emulate. Jindal’s supporters also spent more money on TV advertising through August in Iowa than anyone else, although that seems certain to change as better-funded candidates invest more heavily in the state.
In polls, Jindal has shown some signs of life in Iowa: A recent survey put him in a three-way tie for fifth, his best showing yet, with 6 percent support. But his national numbers are dismal, averaging below 1 percent. That puts him on track to appear, once again, on the so-called undercard, in the third nationally televised debates of the Republican primaries, on CNBC on Oct. 28.
Jindal was relegated to the undercard for the first two debates as well, meaning he took the stage with the other also-rans prior to the prime-time event featuring the leading candidates.
His campaign minimized the importance of those earlier debates, but his staffers have changed their tune in the lead-up to the next one: They say the debates can shape the outcome of the election, and they’ve criticized the criteria CNBC has said it will use to divide the field.
The nomination, the Jindal campaign says, is not determined through a national vote, but by state-by-state results. Team Jindal argues the debate seeding should be based on polls from the early states in the process, such as Iowa. From Jindal’s point of view, maybe it should be Iowa, period: In the other states that vote before March 1 — New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada — Jindal’s standing in the polls is next to invisible.
Gregory Roberts is chief of The Advocate Washington bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and is on Twitter, @GregRobertsDC. For more coverage of national government and politics, follow The Advocate Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.