What Santorum ’16 says about GOP ’12

by Ben Resnik

Don’t get me wrong — it is way, way too early to begin speculating about 2016. Doing so is horse-race journalism at its worst, and the Rubio-Ryan-Clinton chess match that started not 12 hours after President Obama’s victory speech is a testament to just how distracted we’ve been from the issues by the pageantry of the process.

But this isn’t about who is going to step up to lead the Republican Party in four years, it’s about the direction that the party is going in right now. And right now, the GOP’s ideal, knight-in-shining-armor candidate is not Marco Rubio or Paul Ryan or even Jeb Bush — it’s former Pennsylvania senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum.

Let’s look at the facts. Mitt Romney (the guy who ran against Barack Obama? Remember him?) was, by the standards of his Republican competitors for office and colleagues down-ticket, a moderate. After the primaries, Romney made a mad dash for the center — he couldn’t quite make it, what with all his talk of “self-deportation” and failure at Jenga, but the attempt was there. Romney, and the rest of the Establishment Republicans who govern the party, recognized the importance of playing to the middle. However, they realized too late that what is said during a primary sticks, and that allowed Obama to paint Mitt as a theocratic, Planned Parenthood-defunding radical.

But the response from the right has not been to reconsider the extremity of the position into which they forced their candidate — it’s to blame Romney for not being conservative enough in his heart. In their logic, Romney was not enough of a True Believer to adequately articulate the tenets of the base’s dogma. The response, instead of a sober reevaluation of principles and an examination of what most voters actually want to see in a candidate, has been a witch hunt to weed out those in the party who are willing to compromise with the Democrats. It’s for this reason that Republican members of Congress, up to and including John Boehner, fear challenges to their authority from the Right.

And so, in office and already on the campaign trail, the specter of Santorum looms large. He’s the reason that the House Republican leadership will refuse to show any willingness to compromise up to the exact moment they announce a deal with the president on the fiscal cliff. He’s the reason that potentially party-redefining politicians like Rubio are making early plays to appeal to Santorum’s base by waffling on the age of the planet. Despite the fact that the Pennsylvania senator has declined to announce his candidacy, and whether it be from warped perceptions inherited from the media or from true, honest-to-God conviction, every congressman and candidate knows that the Republican base, in their heart of hearts, wants to vote for Rick Santorum.

For all intents and purposes, Santorum is the quintessential post-Obama Republican. He opposes the Department of Education but supports prayer in public schools; he supports a gay marriage ban but decries federal overreach; he lambasts governmental inefficiency while lamenting a shrunken military budget. And, what’s more, he is a True Believer for every point. Santorum wants the American people to remember what he says during the primaries because, to him and his backers, it’s what will get him to the White House and to work.

To every moderate Republican and center-right independent reading this in insult and horror — I know you’re not all like this. I know there are gradients and disputes and that a considerable percentage of you would find Santorum as abhorrent a nominee as would any Democrat, that he is just the product of a lunatic fringe. But you can hear from the mouths of the candidates that, for campaign purposes, that fringe is the Republican Party’s new base. In all likelihood, Santorum will not be the 2016 Republican nominee. But he’s no Ron Paul. His support matters, and rather than proposing a bold new agenda, the next election cycle will be a game of candidates convincing voters that they are better, more electable versions of Santorum. The man himself might not be on the podium at the 2016 Republican convention, but his ideology will be.

Rick Santorum is rock bottom for the Republican Party. He is the embodiment of the “small government except…” model of the Reagan Coalition of libertarians and evangelicals stretched to its logical endpoint. For a constituency grasping for the moral fire of the  ‘80s, primed by conservative demagogues to expect a conquering, 49-state hero to return morning to America every election cycle, Santorum fits the bill — he says his talking points as well as the rest of them, but he actually believes them.  And as long as the Grand Old Party’s candidates try to become variants of Rick, as long as the uncompromising True Believer is the one that turns the voters out, the Republicans will never be the modern, common-sense party they need and deserve to be this century.

 

photo by Gage Skidmore: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gageskidmore/6184423578/