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The wrong 'war' at the wrong time

In nearly every instance, the political world operates on a hair trigger -- rapid-response teams, which used to be limited to campaigns, now exist year round
Will the GOP take Limbaugh's culture-war advice?
Will the GOP take Limbaugh's culture-war advice?

In nearly every instance, the political world operates on a hair trigger -- rapid-response teams, which used to be limited to campaigns, now exist year round, operating in both parties on a 24-7 basis.

It's worth noting, then, just how quiet the political world was, at least initially, when the Obama administration announced that American health insurance plans would have to cover contraception as part of preventive care. When the decision was made public on Jan. 20, the Republicans' rapid-response teams were relatively -- and uncharacteristically -- quiet. If the right was outraged, it was a muted furor.

A couple of weeks later, GOP officials suddenly realized they were offended after all, and started complaining bitterly. What took them so long? It's hard to say with certainty, of course, but encouraging economic reports may have very well led Republicans to start asking an awkward question: "What else can we talk about in 2012?"

For some in the party, the answer is an oldie but a goodie: the culture war. Benjy Sarlin reported this morning that the "God/guns/gays plan that re-elected President Bush" is "gaining traction fast on the right."

"I suspect if I'm Mitt Romney, I'm getting a little nervous because maybe that jobs picture won't look so bad in November," Santorum said last month after the latest jobs report. "And then, what's his pitch to all of you? 'I'm the guy who can put you back to work.' The president of the United States is more than a guy in the private sector who knows how to create jobs. You've got to be the commander in chief. You've got to look at bigger issues. You've got to look at what the role of a leader is in this country."Given that Republicans have been losing almost every fight this year over abortion, gay marriage, and contraception in the court of public opinion, this may come across as a dangerous move. But it has at least one very powerful sympathizer in Rush Limbaugh (who, by the way, has no qualms about openly rooting for the economy to fail this year)."Something tells me, that if the upcoming election could be decided on social issues, the Republicans could win that in a landslide, because we are on the right side of the culture war," Limbaugh told listeners on Thursday.

If the GOP is convinced the economy is recovering, and President Obama is likely to get some credit for that, it's easy to understand the appeal of this strategy. It has, after all, worked in the past.

But there are two broader problems with the tack.

The first is that the Great Recession wasn't just an economic crisis; it was a disaster that dramatically changed the country's priorities. Going into the 2012 election season, when the public is asked which issues matter most, 2% say immigration, 1% say abortion, 1% say religious values, and 44% say economy/jobs. For a party to ignore this is an invitation to be labeled out of touch.

The second is that Limbaugh's confidence about public attitudes is misplaced. Not only does the American mainstream not want to fight the culture war right now, when pressed, most of the public likes contraception, supports Roe v. Wade, and approves of marriage equality. One could certainly make the case that gun control isn't popular, at least not with key voting constituencies, but since Democrats aren't even trying to change the status quo, it's not much of a campaign issue.

Limbaugh complained on the air yesterday that the Republican establishment "wants no part of" the culture war. There's a good reason for that: GOP leaders can read polls.

It's easy to understand Republicans trying to pivot away from the economy. Identifying what they'd pivot to is much trickier.