The real, immutable core concern of the Republican Party is, and has forever been, to shift taxes from the very rich to the rest of us. Everything else — abortion, immigration, creationism, small government, law and order, gay rights — is just bait to lure the suckers into the net. Here’s Daniel Larison at The American Conservative, cutting to the chase:
On the other point, it is not all that remarkable that Republican officeholders are being punished entirely for their fiscal errors. It is difficult to think of incumbent Republicans abandoning their party because of a backlash against their social liberalism, but it is fairly easy in recent years to find examples of fiscal moderates and liberals in the party that the rank-and-file have turned against or liberal Republican incumbents who switched parties at least partly because of disagreements over fiscal policy (e.g., Jeffords).
Indeed, we can look at Arlen Specter’s recent political career as proof that social conservative litmus tests frequently count for a lot less than fiscal conservative tests in the modern GOP. In 2004, the party establishment rallied around Specter on the grounds that the party supported incumbents against primary challengers. To his lasting embarrassment and discredit, Santorum endorsed Specter over Toomey.
Pro-lifers’ objections to Specter’s position on abortion weren’t important enough to Santorum or to the administration to risk losing that seat to the Democrats, and in the end they weren’t quite important enough to the primary voters, either. Five years later, one vote Specter cast for the stimulus made him persona non grata in the Pennsylvania GOP. Had Specter not cast that vote, it is questionable whether Toomey’s challenge would have still driven Specter to switch parties.
In practice, fiscal issues tend to be more important to more Republican activists and primary voters than social issues in almost every contest, except perhaps presidential primaries, and even in these contests it depends. Huckabee translated his strong social conservative record and evangelical Christianity into a sizeable following by the end of the primaries, but he never won outside the South and he was widely loathed in the conservative movement for his fiscal record as governor. His combination of social conservatism and economic pseudo-populism went over very badly with party and movement leaders generally, even though there is some reason to think that socially conservative and economically populist candidates could tap into a much broader base of support nationally.
For party and movement leaders, Romney had become sufficiently conservative on social issues to pass muster, despite having zero credibility on these issues, and what really mattered to them was his position on fiscal and economic issues. McCain took a lot of grief from activists and conservative voters for several reasons, but his opposition to Bush’s tax cuts earlier in the decade was always high on the list of McCain’s errors.