Apparently the Republicans don't quite understand that when they make inflammatory comments about things like abortion and its legality in cases of rape or incest, they're constructing shiny objects with which their opponents can take them off message for days at a time. This is so stupid on its face that I'm tempted to think that I'm missing something. But I have a better question: Why do social conservatives care about this stuff?
Full disclosure: I'm not a social conservative. I'm pro-abortion. (The term "pro-choice" seems horribly dishonest to me.) I think that children ought to learn about evolution and earth science and cosmology. I think that teaching kids how to stay unpregnant and disease-free during sex is a reasonable function for public schools, although I have no problem with parents opting their kids out of such classes. I don't have a problem with sex and violence on TV or pornography or the general coarsening of our discourse. If gay people want to get married, I don't care. And I certainly think that gay couples need to have the same legal rights as straight couples, even if they aren't married. I'm perfectly happy if immigrants import strange customs and funny ideas. (I'd like them to import them--and themselves--legally, but I'm disinclined to support the ugliness and suffering that would be involved in rounding up everybody who's here illegally.)
On the other hand, I do understand that social coherency is important to national strength and economic robustness, and that the easiest way of maintaining social coherency is to maintain traditional values. And none of the things I've listed above (with the exception of indoctrinating children with incorrect science) is conducive to the maintenance of said values.
So the answer to my title question is, at the most obvious level, pretty simple: Social conservatives want to maintain traditional values. But the problem we're going to face is that maintenance of a value system implies a certain level of disgust and intolerance when that value system is violated. Disgust has grown terribly unfashionable, and intolerance is now, for all intents and purposes, illegal.
So let's peel back the next layer of the onion and look at the factors that mitigate disgust and intolerance, and therefore erode traditional values. These are all going to boil down to two factors: media and government coercion.
Of these, media is by far the biggest problem. TV and internet show kids behaviors that aren't part of the traditional culture, and in so showing them inoculate the kids to the strangeness. When behaviors aren't strange, they don't generate disgust. With no disgust, the probability of kids adopting some of the behaviors goes way up.
Even worse, special interest groups have learned how to indoctrinate via the media. Parents are helpless to prevent this kind of indoctrination, short of turning off the the TV and the internet (which is what they should do...).
Protection of civil rights is the camel's nose under the tent that lets the government begin coercing behaviors. The government can't do much about disgust, but they can force tolerance. There's a fine line to be trod here, and the government tends not to be very subtle. Here also, special interest groups know just how to tweak the government to get their hunks of cultural agenda institutionalized and codified, making them part of the culture willy-nilly.
Social conservatives quite correct view both the media and the government as huge threats to what they view as traditional culture. They feel that they're getting stuff force-fed to their children, and they have no defense against it. So the real answer to the question, "What do social conservatives want?" is that they want to be left alone.
But the "culture war" is inherently asymmetrical, with one side proactively trying to change a variety of stuff and the other side merely resisting that change. The problem is that the social conservatives believe that playing defense isn't working. So they've found a way to play offense, a way that's, well, offensive.
When you don't have a legal framework for resisting assaults on your values, your next best weapon is to attempt to discredit the people doing the assaulting. This is why the Right is obsessed with the "liberal media" and with "big government". It's why the Right spends so much time resisting abortion and gay rights. It's why they work so hard to discredit multiculturalism. They think that this is the only way to hold back the tide. And it doesn't really matter how valid their arguments are; muddying the waters is a somewhat effective way to ensure that they things they're resisting remain excluded from mainstream thought.
The second tactic is to become reactionary. Social conservatives maintain a benchmark for culture that would require eliminating existing rights and cultural conventions. It'll never happen, but it forces their opponents to play more defense and less offense.
But in the long run this is going to be an abysmal failure. The culture is what the culture is, and trying to roll it back is guaranteed to alienate moderate voters who by-and-large don't care that much but who think that denial of reality as a negotiating strategy is just plain stupid. Social conservatives lose power with the center, and the best that they can hope to do is to maintain the status quo. And each time that they alienate too much of the center, they lose a little more cultural ground.
I think that there's a way to win, and it will be massively less disruptive to political discourse. Here it is:
Accept the status quo, and turn off your TV sets.
Think how much more powerful Romney's and Ryan's message would be if they merely said, "You all know where we stand on these issues, but we're willing to take them off the table, as long as our opponents don't push past the status quo." Would the Far Right be angry about this? Probably. But there's an answer for them, too. "These aren't national issues, but they're terrific local ones. Work with your neighbors to live the way you think is is right, and we'll keep the government off your back. Then the only thing that can hurt you is the media, and they can only hurt you if you listen to them. So keep your kids away from the TV and massively restrict their internet access."
We're not going back to a 1950's society, short of a massive technological collapse. But social conservatives can get what they want, as long as they can limit government coercion to current levels. Ironically, the best way to do that is to stop fighting and focus on the economy. Pro-business fiscal conservatives will win every time with the independents as long as they don't freak them out with fantasy. And, once power is won, it can be maintained as long as the basic bargain is kept: Any additional changes will be resisted, but nobody will try to roll back the changes already made.