The 2012 Republican presidential nomination process has been a bizarre process of the party’s faithful fighting against their establishment; an on-going effort to find a successful counter-claimant to the nominee-apparent. And one-by-one all these Quixotic quitters have been felled by the wind from their own mouths. Now comes the latest, and perhaps last, hope of the anti-establishment conservatives, Rick Santorum, who now polls above Romney both nationally and in Romney’s own home state of Michigan.
Frankly, I never imagined that Santorum could become a serious challenger. He lacks any noticeable charisma, it seems to me, he lost his 2006 bid for a third Senate term by 18 points (big losers in state politics don’t normally become national winners), and he’s far too openly religio-moralistic in his politics for most people–even most conservatives–to feel really comfortable with him. So…why Santorum now?
I think the answer is simple; there’s nobody else left. All the other anti-Mitts having run themselves out of the race through their own verbal idiocies, there’s only one Anti-Mitt left and he’s it. He was not a serious candidate at the beginning of the process, and given any other acceptable conservative he would not be a serious candidate now. But by virtue of having avoided any big verbal gaffes–or perhaps of having just avoided the spotlight–he has become the last man standing for conservatives. (And it hasn’t hurt that Romney has made a couple of verbal gaffes himself recently.)
But now all attention is on Santorum. The spotlight that was previously elsewhere, drawing attention to the oratorical oopsies of others, is now focused on him. That means everyone is now oohing and aahing over the threat he poses to Romney. But of course they oohed and aahed over the other would-be anti-Mitts, too, plumping each on up as maybe being the real deal. Whether they did that simply because it sells or because the national media is really shallow enough to take each flash-in-the-pan as the second coming of St. Ronnie of Malibu, I don’t really know, but in each they over-estimated the candidate’s chances.
And there’s the lesson for the moment. The media is again agog over a conservative anti-Mitt’s chances, but now that the spotlight is on Santorum, does he actually have a chance to fair any better than his predecessors? Or will he the spotlight simply bring national attention to errors he has made, is making, or will make?
Possibly he has more staying power simply because he’s the last hope. Had he been the first to attract notice, perhaps he’d now be gone, and we might be focusing on whichever other candidate had best avoided drawing attention to him/herself. But being last, the conservative base simply has no other place to turn, so they may stick with him no matter what, out of sheer necessity.
But…this is Rick Santorum we’re talking about. He lost his Pennsylvania Senate race by 18 points as an incumbent because he insisted on basing his campaign on moral issues, and that’s still the basis of his campaign. Sure, he looks good at the moment, but how many “theology” statements can he make before he looks every bit as crazy as Michele Bachmann? How many people, even among conservative Republicans, want a president who argues that “Satan is systematically destroying America“? Americans surely like to see their presidents sitting in a church pew, and we like him to say “God bless America,” but we really don’t respond well to the “preacher as president” model (ask Mike Huckabee about his presidential aspirations).
My prediction is that Santorum stumbles badly, in the near future, as the media begins to spotlight the way in which he fails to discriminate between religion and politics. It won’t be his Catholicism that does him in but his evangelicalism. And for me that can’t come too quickly. I don’t care much about a president’s private religious beliefs, but I don’t want a president driven by apocalyptic visions, or one who thinks half the country is demon-possessed. No good can come of that.