In an earlier political era in American history, circa 6 months ago, say, most right-thinking people, politically minded and otherwise, never game any credence to Rick Santorum’s 2012 presidential ambitions. While possessing a fairly pleasing set of attitudes on the sort of social issues that actually matter to the kinds of people that would find Santorum’s set of attitudes on them pleasing, his sympathizers nonetheless saw no sizzle; neither did they find among his positions anything that made them stop and think that he had any sort of roadmap out of our recent economically dark times. His presence and performance in the traveling carnival that was Fall ’11 season of Republican Idol, generally solid, steady, and on message, simply wasn’t showstopping and therefore could never make either the judges or the audience take their eyes off their respective (though very different) favorites. Those favorites, respectively, were Romney and…Everybody But (but not Rick (S)).
Today, as Michigan (and Arizonan) primary voters take their turn writing names, pushing buttons, and pulling levers, the profile of candidates they will choose from looks dramatically different. Everybody But (but not Rick (S)) had essentially exhausted all its options (save Ron P, but that is another matter) by the end of the calendar year. Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich each took a turn in the spotlight to audition for the role of ‘true conservative’, to be the kind of nominee that hard-right Republicans could, win or lose, proudly go to battle for. All flopped, flamed-out, fumbled, or philandered their way off stage. By the time the actual counting of votes began in Iowa, Santorum was the only alternative to Romney’s phony conservatism left standing. His strong second-place-on-second-thought make that first-place showing owed as much to his good fortune for being an afterthought while Everyone But made fools of themselves as it did to his aforementioned pleasing set of attitudes. In any case, Rick was in the conversation.
Or he was until he got drubbed in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida and Nevada. But then he had his own private Super Tuesday on February 7, besting the field in Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado. He has since enjoyed advanced polls from Michigan that have him leading Romney, one of a number of states that the once inevitable nominee has some claim or other to call ‘home.’ Santorum’s post Iowa stumbles appear now to be the result of a mix of unfavorable demographics and a South Carolinian electorate reluctant to acknowledge the absurdity of a Newt Gingrich.
Santorum’s ascendancy as the conservative faithful’s real alternative to Romney has also been abetted by some creeping changes to the very landscape on which the fight for the Oval Office is expected to be settled. It is slowly filtering into the consciousness of Americans that our long-ailing economy has perhaps begun convalescing, and with them President Obama’ approval ratings. That, of course, is bad news for Romney. Romney has always been the judges’ favorite contestant, and grudgingly that of some of the audience, because he was ‘electable.’ His electability was a function of two things: First, his undisputed business acumen suggested that he could fix the economy in ways that Obama clearly could not. Second, he was a phony conservative and wouldn’t frighten independent voters. While the Everybody But parade spoke to the unwillingness of many conservatives to accept a phony as their standard-bearer, what is truly lethal to Romney’s candidacy – to the very reason for it – is for the economy not to be so obviously in need of Romney’s fixing. If the dark clouds are breaking up and the sun starts peaking through, Romney becomes redundant, ridiculous even, a Ken-doll flip-flopper who’s signature legislation he is now running against. In other words, Romney becomes unelecatable.
But if Romney can’t win then the conservatives of the GOP (they don’t comprise a ‘wing’ of it, they are its center) have no use for him whatsoever. If they are going to have to vote for a loser they can just as well vote for one they believe in. Freed from the lure of electability, they can vote strictly on principle, and for that Santorum, a plain-spoken and earnest defender of their views, suits nicely. Democrats likely think that the rise of Santorum is evidence of Republican delirium and will serve only to hand Obama the election. This gets things the wrong way round. Republicans are now clearly seeing the overwhelming likelihood of Obama’s victory, and are turning to Santorum so they at least have someone speak for them.