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Desperately Seeking Santorum
This year’s presidential campaign will be remembered principally for the Republican’s desperate search for ABR—anybody but Romney. As I write this in March 2012, the field appears to have narrowed to four: Romney, Santorum, Gingrich, and Paul. But it’s not really four. Ron Paul’s odds of winning the nomination are about as good as Jerry Sandusky’s odds at being named the next Pope. Which leaves us with three . . . but not really. In the polls, Newt has had more ups and downs in the past year than the DOW, and his star is fading fast. Republicans everywhere except in the Deep South seem to have realized that candidate Gingrich would carry more baggage than United Airlines. This is the guy who was railing against Bill Clinton for his Monica Lewinsky indiscretions while Gingrich himself was having an illicit affair. Moral hypocrisy doesn’t get more sordid than that. Pitting him against Obama next fall would be like conceding the election before it’s held.
Which leaves us with Rick Santorum as the only viable Republican candidate other than Romney. It has been a long and lonely road for Santorum. He lingered in obscurity for months, the barely mentioned candidate who had little presence and few followers while Rick Perry soared to front-runner status, only to be done in by his own blistering stupidity, and then Herman Cain grabbed the baton and ran with it, stumbling weeks later when one woman after another surfaced with increasingly credible claims that Herman couldn’t keep his hands (and other body parts) to himself. Michele Bachmann fizzled after an early win in the Iowa straw polls, and Sarah Palin, Republican darling of the 2008 presidential campaign, flirted repeatedly with the press from her showy campaign bus prior to the first debates, but in the end she turned out to be a tease.
Which leaves us with Rick Santorum.
And this begs the question: What is wrong with Romney anyway? Why aren’t voters in the Republican primaries supporting him in greater numbers? Poll after poll has anointed him as the candidate most likely to beat Obama in the fall. If people voted based on electability, he might already be the Republican candidate for president. But voters, especially those in the primaries, tend to vote with their hearts instead of their heads, and herein lies the problem with Romney. He’s a difficult guy to love, especially for the average, Bible-thumping conservative.
Although Romney claims to be a conservative, many people suspect that he’s actually a moderate in conservative clothing. And they are correct. Despite Romney’s declarations of late, he is clearly a moderate, and a dedicated hard core of tea partying, right-wing-to-the-bone conservatives don’t trust Romney to carry out their agenda. And they shouldn’t . . . because he wouldn’t. Romney says whatever he thinks voters want to hear (another reason to distrust him), but if he were elected he would serve the broadest constituency (which, by the way, is what we need the country’s president to do) rather than the narrow agenda of the conservative bloc that currently dominates the Republican Party.
If we ignore, for the moment, that Romney is not a hardcore conservative, the candidate we see has a lot of the right stuff. He’s been both a successful businessman and a successful governor. He knows how to run things. He understands economics. He’s put together an admirable machine to run his campaign. Moreover, as far as we know, he is a dedicated family man with no moral issues that could derail his candidacy. He hasn’t had multiple affairs and multiple wives (for that, see Newt Gingrich). He hasn’t had a legion of women claiming that he groped them (for that, see Herman Cain). In fact, it’s difficult to imagine that Romney has any skeletons in his closet. If he did, surely they would have emerged by now.
But there is the Mormon thing, and this is what worries many religious conservatives. Some of them believe that Mormonism is a cult, which makes it scary somehow. (One can imagine that this is what the Romans thought of early Christians.) There are fears that, if elected, Romney would be taking orders from the head of the Morman church (whom the Mormans consider a prophet), but the same fears surfaced when JFK was running for president, and the Pope, as far as we can tell, had very little to say about how Kennedy ran the country. Some fundamentalists worry that if Romney were elected those Mormon missionaries we see everywhere would have even more success finding new followers—and Mormonism is already the fastest growing religion in the country.
The irony is that Romney displays the virtues and lives the values that most fundamentalists espouse, and compared to Newt Gingrich, Romney is a saint. But they just can’t stomach that Mormon thing and for this reason alone won’t support Romney.
Which leaves us with Rick Santorum.
But Santorum is also problematic as a challenger to Obama next fall. His strongest platform is social conservatism—and here he has shown himself to be radically out of touch with mainstream America, particularly on the issue of contraception. He opposes birth control on moral grounds, presumably because of his Catholicism, although a recent poll showed that 92 percent of Catholic women use some form of birth control. He doesn’t believe in the separation of church and state, which was one of our nation’s founding principles. He believes that God’s laws are more important than man’s laws (a form of government called a theocracy and no different from the way Iran is governed). And his stance against homosexuality is ugly and intolerant.
It’s not clear that Santorum knows anything about the economy (he rarely talks about it). He has no foreign policy experience. He doesn’t have extensive government experience (neither did Obama). The only thing that qualifies him to run the country, at least from his perspective, is that he thinks he has better ideas about how Americans should live their lives than most Americans do. Santorum appeals to religious conservatives, which is why he does well in states with many religious conservatives among the Republican primary voters, but it’s doubtful that he will appeal to a broader spectrum of voters in the general election, especially the moderate and independent voters who constitute the largest bloc of swing votes. If he does become the Republican nominee, you can bet that his socially conservative views will be highlighted not only by negative ads from his democratic opponent but also by political action committees run by Americans who don’t want to their country to be led by a religious zealot intent on imposing his moral views on everyone else.
As the Republican nominee, Santorum would be a bigger political liability than many Republican voters, in their zeal to nominate ABR, appear to realize. Santorum’s social conservatism, as out of touch as it is, would derail his candidacy and give Obama a second term, particularly if the economy continues to improve in the next eight months.
Which leaves us with Mitt Romney.
Other than the Mormon thing, his biggest liability as a candidate is himself. He tries to be like the rest of us but can’t pull it off. His jokes are lame. He has that odd robotic smile. And he often makes comments that lead people to suspect he has no clue how the 99.999 percent of Americans who are not in his income bracket actually live. But he tries to remain focused on the right issues (the economy) and he would not be as threatening a candidate to moderate and independent voters as Paul, Gingrich, and Santorum would be. For that reason, he is the Republican’s best shot at gaining the presidency next fall. But the hardcore conservatives who are shaping the Republican race may not give him that chance. By desperately seeking Santorum—or anybody else but Romney—they may be handing a second term to Obama.
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