Romney and Santorum are at each other’s throats. Each claims to be the real conservative. Romney accuses Santorum of being an old fashioned wheeling and dealing politician. Santorum laughs that Romney is a liberal governor from Massachusetts. The two are racing even in Michigan and nationally. A loss or even a bare bones win would be a disaster for Romney.
If Santorum wins tomorrow, he could potentially sneak ahead of Romney as merely the latest incarnation of the not-Romney. Every other Tim, Rick and Herman couldn’t knock Romney off his pedestal as the anointed-by-money nominee. But Santorum has something going for him the others didn’t, and not just being in the right place at the right time.
In 2008, I wrote that Bush’s unpopularity was so deep and so broad that he had collapsed the Reagan Coalition. Reagan cobbled together a coalition of fiscal conservatives and religious conservatives, who cooperated in nominating the candidates who could win national elections. This formula worked for the GOP for a quarter century. But if the financial and social conservatives represented the two tusks of the GOP elephant, Karl Rove poached the elephant for its ivory.
The Bush administration won historically narrow elections and proceeded to govern as if they had won ironclad mandates. The unending parade of scandals that made Richard Nixon look honest and Dan Quayle look like a genius left Bush’s name mud. In 2006 and 2008, the Republicans ran as far away from Bush as they could while still calling themselves Republicans. Unfortunately for them, they all scrambled in different directions.
The result was that the Democrats swept into Congress in 2006. Then in 2008, fiscal conservative Romney and social conservative Mike Huckabee fought each other to a standstill. Centrist maverick John McCain emerged from the stalemate, much to the chagrin of the base. In an attempt to placate hardcore conservatives, McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate. Palin then became arguably the most recognizable leader of the astroturf populism movement the Tea Party.
In the hopes of whipping up the base to scratch the two-year itch, party operators fired up the Tea Party kettle to a screeching boil. The Citizens United ruling opened the floodgates. Corporate libertarians poured unprecedented sums into the 2010 races. The GOP appeared to have found its way out of the wilderness much more swiftly than anyone expected. But appearances were deceiving.
The fiscal and social conservatives represent two warring factions within the post-Bush GOP. They each offer different candidates and can’t agree on an electable compromise. The Tea Party is a third, less predictable and more amateurish faction. While there is significant overlap between the Tea Party and the other factions, the Tea Party has emerged as a sort of kingmaker. The other two professional factions have to kiss the ring of the rabble activist. In doing so, they have to run far, far to the right to get nominated. As a result, electable candidates can’t get nominated, serious candidates spin into a tornado of shifting positions on key issues, and only far right radicals who can’t win can get nominated.
The GOP morality play is acting out on almost the same script as 2008, only more so. While John McCain was genuinely electable, the closest thing to a maverick in 2012 is Newt Gingrich, who can’t win, frankly, because he’s Newt Gingrich. That leaves the GOP with two choices. Romney’s case for the White House is his claim that he is a private sector operator who understands the economy. His problem, though, is that he is to presidential candidates what a RealDoll is to girlfriends.
That leaves Rick Santorum who is running for Pope-in-Chief. When the only Catholic president, John F. Kennedy ran for the Oval Office, he promised the country that the Pope would not be calling the shots, and he respected the separation of church and state. Upon listening to this speech, Rick Santorum “almost threw up.” Sanctimonious Santorum believes that married couples should not use contraception because then they would have sex.
Rick Santorum is an extremist. His views do not reflect anything but the furthest fringes of the Republican Party. Yet, he has enraptured religious conservatives and he is beginning to dip deeply into the Tea Party.
Cornering two of the three GOP factions has been the Holy Grail for each candidate since the very beginning. The primaries have been the most volatile in history because none of them have been able to do it. A few candidates, like Michelle Bachmann and Herman Cain, played specifically to the Tea Party, but didn’t resonate with the other factions. Perry ran on experience and good ol’ Texas Tea but desperately fired a shotgun blast of appeal at social conservatives right before he went down in flames.
Santorum is surging because he is the first candidate to make the sign of the cross through two of the three GOP factions. But Rick Santorum not only can’t win a national election, but would be detrimental to all Republicans down the ballot. His candidacy is a grenade. The social conservatives pulled the pin out of it and the Tea Party is going to force the GOP to swallow it.
Mitt is marching around Michigan trying to convince people that it’s still his home turf after all these decades in Massachusetts, and that when he wrote an op-ed calling for the government to “let Detroit go bankrupt” he didn’t really mean it. Even if Romney manages to limp to victory in the Wolverine State, the base will likely abandon him. He has to run to the center to win this vital state, but that could cost him dearly in later primaries.
Meanwhile, Rick Santorum is about to explode.