by Stewart Pollock on Friday, February 24th, 2012
Ronald Reagan once said “Politics is the second oldest profession in the world. I have come to see that it bears a very close resemblance to the first.” An extreme analogy, perhaps, but in a year like this, it certainly seems to ring true.
A natural result of the primary process is that candidates are forced to move away from the center to please the “base.” Normally, this is only a temporary arrangement: once the delegates have been awarded at the convention, it usually is easy enough for a candidate to move back to the center without ruffling any feathers. The risk lies in going too far out of the mainstream to successfully snap back. A serious gaffe or an out-of-context remark all can come back to haunt a candidate once November rolls around.
This Republican primary briefly seemed like it was going to avoid that nasty phase. With the country so focused on the recovery of the economy (or lack thereof), it seemed that the Republican plan of attack would be to turn the election into a referendum on the president’s fiscal policy: a sound plan for a “manager” like Mitt Romney.
Enter Rick Santorum. This devoutly Catholic, sweater-vest wearing former Senator from Pennsylvania swept onto the national stage with all the pizazz of Ben Stein. His extreme social views, combined with his lack of Media Savvy, meant he remained at the bottom of the heap while all of the other anti-Mitt’s exploded or fizzled out. Much like the male Siamese Fighting Fish, he waited as his opponents tore into each other, and eventually went after the worn-out victory (Analogy courtesy of From Russia with Love). After a belated victory in Iowa, followed by several more in Minnesota and Colorado, Santorum finally seems to have caught up with Mitt.
With the two running neck-and-neck in Michigan, it seems as if the Conservative base may have finally, finally found a viable alternative to Romney. Should Santorum pull off an upset victory in his opponent’s home state, then it will be a serious question whether or not Romney will maintain his front-runner status.
This state of affairs has made two groups very happy: the Religious Right, who hope to send another one of their number (albeit a Catholic one) to the White House, and Democrats, who hope that Republicans don’t read polling data before making their decision. The truth is, Santorum has a very slim chance of becoming President, for all the reasons which make him a attractive choice to the right-wing of the GOP.
Mitt Romney is not, despite what Newt Gingrich says, a “Massachusetts Moderate.” His positions on social issues such as gay marriage, abortion, and affirmative action are very conservative. Only when compared to someone like Santorum could Romney appear even remotely centrist. This hasn’t, of course, stopped the Right from treating him as such, but it does mean, come the general election, independents might do the same.
With those independents making up a growing slice of the electorate (upwards of 40%) Republicans should be moving back towards the center, where they can tap into that rich vein of fiscal-conservatism and social-apathy which matters so much. But instead, led by Santorum and an increasingly self-caricatured Gingrich, they are pushing backwards: trying to re-ignite the flames of a culture war which they lost in 2005 in a Florida courtroom.
The debate currently raging in Washington about President Obama’s health insurance mandate shows two things: the Catholic Church’s hierarchy doesn’t like compromise (big shocker, I know) and Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates are tone-deaf when it comes to the broader electorate. Why, when the recovery of the economy is shaky at best, would the opposition turn the debate towards an issue where they are so weak? Even if the Bishops are complaining about the President’s policy, their flocks clearly aren’t: polls have shown that US Catholics support birth control by margins as high as 84%. With Gay Marriage losing its appeal as a wedge issue, it seems incredibly counterproductive for these Conservative leaders to try and make their stand on social issues.
Santorum’s success is in many ways the culmination of this regression. Through his candidacy, it seems, Republicans are repeating the same process that led to them to choose (then) arch-conservative Barry Goldwater to challenge LBJ in 1964. I am not a Republican, even a moderate one, but I am amazed that the party of Lincoln and Eisenhower could have become so blind to the changes in the country. Fiscal conservatism is a good platform to stand on—even if the one doing the standing is someone as bland as Mitt Romney. Santorum’s anti-Gay, anti-Woman, and anti-Science Paleo-conservatism is anything but.
Goldwater, years after being pummeled by President Johnson in a landslide—due in part to his perceived conservative extremism—told Bob Dole “We’re the new liberals of the Republican party. Can you imagine that?” As bizarre as it may seem, he was right. Mitt Romney will probably be the nominee, which means that the election will almost certainly come down to the economy. But if Republican primary voters want not only to lose the election but also put their party’s future on the line, they need only mark a check next to that smiling; sweater vest clad former Senator from Pennsylvania..
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