February 27, 2012        A publication of Thursday Review, copyright 2012

It had been a rough few days for Rick Santorum, and it was getting rougher.  Appearing on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday, the former Pennsylvania Senator was subjected to a barrage of his own recorded words—played back—while moderator David Gregory sought, aggressively at times, to extract clarification from Santorum on some of his recent statements on family, birth control and social issues.  Wincing and growing weary, Santorum launched into the start of a sharp counter-attack and time-honored tactic—blame the reporter for creating a distraction from the major issues.  Before Santorum could reach full stride, Gregory cut him short, saying that since these were Santorum’s own words, the rhetoric was the issue.

Santorum was already stinging and bruised from a week-long crossfire of negative ads—some paid for by the allies of Mitt Romney, some paid for by Ron Paul.  Despite stellar showings in the last several debates, the strength of his performance dropped substantially in Wednesday night’s debate in Mesa, Arizona, where he had stumbled through tortured explanations of some of his decisions while a member of the Senate.  And among other indignities, he had been called “a fake conservative” by Ron Paul, both in the TV ads being run in Michigan, and by Ron Paul himself.

Then there were Santorum’s “concerns” about the role of women in combat, and what he initially called the potential for emotional problems in battlefield situations.  This was heresy for feminists, a devaluation perhaps of the women who had already served in frontline combat, and—according to the media prattle—a giant step backward into nostalgia about the family and the role of women in society.

And to make matters worse, his most recent criticisms of Barack Obama as being “a snob” for insisting that every young person should go to college had misfired.  The President, Santorum explained, simply wanted kids to attend college so that they could turn out in the elitist image of Obama himself.  Santorum’s subsequent attempts to amplify and clarify this haymaker did not work, and he quickly found himself trapped against the ropes for the weekend.

Though the college-snobbery formulation fell short of being an all-out gaffe, the ensuing fracas proved to be one of several significant distractions for Santorum—this on a weekend when voters in Arizona and Michigan were settling into their decision-making modes.  With the two top-tier candidates locked in a dead heat in the Wolverine State, sideshow issues like these can prove disruptive, at best, and devastating at worst.

Rick Santorum had learned one of the most important lessons of politics: be careful what you wish for.  As the anointed front-runner, or at least as someone in a virtual tie with a front-runner, Santorum is experiencing the full force of incoming fire not only from his GOP opponents, but also in the form of intense scrutiny by a media community consumed with notions of drama and controversy.  With little else to do, reporters hang on every word. Some call this sort of sharkiness a feeding frenzy.

The list of those who have not survived the process of attrition—Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain—is a testament to the dynamics often at work in the contemporary primary and caucus season.  All three were once celebrated challengers to the presumptive heir.  Two of the three actually saw shifting poll numbers momentarily elevate them to the top of the upper tier. 

Eventually, one-by-one, the challengers self-destructed or faded away.  Romney would find himself under assault, pronounced by some to be in grave danger (yes, I did it myself several issues back), but then Romney would battle his way back to renewal and possible redemption.  After an impressive win in Florida, at which time it appeared he had driven the stake through the heart of Newt Gingrich and the insurrection, why wouldn’t Romney seem inevitable?

But then, two things converged: Romney, with the cosmic prankster-meddler hovering over his shoulder, bumped his head predictably onto that glass ceiling of support—he was Charlie Brown running toward that elusive football, yet again; and Santorum, having already seen Florida as an expensive land of political entrapment, sprang his February surprises in Colorado, Missouri and Minnesota—in the process shattering Romney’s veneer of inevitability.  Romney was stuck nationally and regionally at somewhere between thirty and thirty-five percent.

This gave Santorum the advantage.  With Gingrich fading, he could be the anti-Romney.  And Santorum, as the insurgent in this asymmetrical battle, could turn Romney’s perceived traditional strengths (wealth, powerful backers, establishment friends, ideological flexibility) into the sort of weaknesses and negative bullet-points that whip evangelicals, social conservatives and Tea Partiers into a frenzy.

One noticeable result has been that Romney, ever the pragmatist and the dynamic tactical thinker, has himself moved further to the right on multiple fronts: immigration, border security, the Middle East, Iran and China.  And, for better or worse, all four of the remaining GOP candidates have been drawn into the stormy, treacherous waters of social issues.  (See my article from February 21).  Last Wednesday’s debate is surely an indication of how far the GOP footprint has shifted as the candidates, Romney and Santorum in particular, pursue delegates, and how far they might be willing to go in the near future—which is to say between now and Super Tuesday.

Is this process healthy for the GOP in the strategic view?  And if it can be shrugged off as the usual dance steps candidates of both parties must sometimes employ to secure base political elements, can the eventual Republican nominee recover a more centrist footing by the time of the convention in Tampa?

Typically, Republicans prefer an orderly, front-loaded primary and caucus season—one that enables the party to wrap up the business of delegate selection and move to the pre-ordination phase.  This early efficiency produces a de facto nominee who can begin campaigning as the standard bearer prior to the convention, and allows the candidate and his surrogates to test and refine the principal messages. Party resources and cash can then be spared for the general election.

Historically, this template gives the GOP an advantage, especially in those election years when the Democratic Party finds itself in disarray or fragmentation (though it did not serve the long range interests of John McCain in 2008; despite their bitter fight, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama settled their differences and presented a unified image at the Denver convention).

But this year it is Republicans who face potential problems as the rift grows wider between the traditionalist wing of the party and the insurrectionist wing.  The large movement of social conservatives, Tea Partiers, evangelicals, and struggling, angry middle class Republicans to the forefront of the party’s activist structure has tipped the balance—or, at least—created a level playing field on which the party elites and the party grassroots can compete.  Normally unified and deeply interrelated, these groups are now divided socially, and matched more-or-less evenly in political determination.

Once welcomed as valuable agents of energetic, vocal anti-Obama sentiment, the Tea Partiers, in Bill Maher’s words, have become the tail that wags the dog, and the stress fractures are visible.

Neither Romney nor Santorum have helped to close this gap.

Romney stumbles frequently into unconscious and indelible demonstrations of wealth and status: comments to an audience in Michigan about his wife being the proud owner of two Cadillac’s; contextual remarks about his interest in this weekend’s Daytona 500 vis-à-vis personal friends who are NASCAR team owners.  Last month, in an interview about economic disparity, he remarked of not being “concerned about the poor,” since “they will be taken care of” with existing social programs.  His infamous debate challenge of Rick Perry to a ten thousand dollar bet actually made Perry seem like a regular Main Street guy.  Though well-known to be a generous giver and a genuinely nice fellow, Romney nevertheless comes across to many voters as what he is: a man of enormous wealth profoundly disconnected to the difficulties and realities of average Americans.

Rick Santorum, on the other hand, is Gingrich without the dissertation on 19th Century history.

Through the language of middle class conservatism and self-conscious echoes of Ronald Reagan, Santorum has learned to channel voter frustrations and fears.  Having outlasted Bachmann and Cain, Santorum’s winning streak was built largely on a direct and unvarnished appeal to non-elites—middle class and working class Republicans, evangelical Christians, and voters aligned closely with traditional family values and heartland lifestyles.  He expresses, sometimes in scrappy language, disdain for liberalism in all its shapes and forms, which, in Tea Party vernacular includes all things Obama.  Santorum’s vision is processed through the lens of nostalgia, and through such optics he sees families in decay, Judeo-Christian values under siege, traditional boundaries blurred or rendered irrelevant, and a society frayed and tattered by gradualism and permissiveness.

When Santorum oversteps or overstates, finding himself the subject of unpleasant media scrutiny—as he did when he expressed scorn for John F. Kennedy’s “separation of church and state” missive from 1960—he sidesteps the problem, sometimes successfully, by insisting he was quoted out of context, or, by accusing reporters of being obsessed with secondary issues.  (In fairness to Santorum, he was quoted out of context on the JFK fracas; when clips from Kennedy’s remarks were shown during Meet the Press, the film had been carefully edited to remove the actual phrase “separation of church and state,” which was in fact the part of Kennedy’s speech most offensive to Santorum since, in fact, the phrase does not exist in the U.S. Constitution).

The path that Santorum has followed in this year is much the same ground covered by Mike Huckabee four years ago, and a trail visited in earlier days by Republican candidates ranging from Pat Robertson to Patrick Buchanan. This is the populist side of the GOP, and currently the faction with the least to lose, and the segment which has seen the most dramatic growth in the last four years.  These boisterous supporters of candidates such as Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and now Rick Santorum are unafraid of taking on the party establishment, especially now that economic conditions create a perfect storm: a recession so severe that middle class citizens feel the same squeeze as the poor; numbing devaluations of the homes and investments and retirement nest eggs; and a unified anger at corporate leaders, financial wizards, mortgage brokers, Washington “elites” and almost anyone connected with Wall Street.  That means the boy wonder of Bain Capital, Mitt Romney.

Only four years ago the followers of Huckabee were charmed by his good-natured, cheerful approach to fusing religious values with secular conservatism, an infectious likeability which made him—at least to some—a more natural heir to the legacy of Ronald Reagan.  Much has changed.  Washington, in the insurrectionist view, is broken—beyond broken.  The damage is so great, and the dysfunction so total, that nothing less than revolutionary action is required.  Thus the near- apocalyptic language and grand one-upmanship—things will be done on day one.  Vetoes, banishments, whole agencies defanged, others infused with testosterone, whole departments abolished.  Fences will be built.  Dictators will be served notice.  Heads will roll.

Romney, of course, once offered a more measured and nuanced approach, generally demurring from this alpha male language in debates. As the darling of conservative commentators and talkers four years ago, it was Romney who was seen as the True Believer, and it was John McCain seen as the transgressor and interloper.  Now Romney jousts ferociously with his opponents to remain non-flanked on his right, engaging in the sort of robust chest-thumping—on Russia, Iran, Pakistan, Mexico—that would make the ghost of General Curtis LeMay blush.  The Romney of six and eight and ten years ago is not the Romney we witness now, angling for acceptance within a conservative movement dominated more by people like Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter than by William F. Buckley or Emmett Tyrrell.

So do Republicans thank the likes of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum for bringing forth this revolution?  And if Romney prevails, does he have the finesse to take his dance step back toward the center—just enough—to reach effectively into the hearts and minds of independent and non-aligned voters?

And in the meantime, does Rick Santorum’s turn in the spotlight continue past his recent trifecta?  When the political gods want to punish you, they answer your prayers. So welcome, Senator Santorum, to the front-runner’s lounge.

Copyright 2012, Thursday Review


Road Show is published each week by Thursday Review publications, copyright 2012