Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum announced the suspension of his campaign for the Republican Presidential nomination on Tuesday, hedging on his reasons aside from his young daughter’s poor health and the failure of his Texas supporters to convert the Lone Star Republic’s Republican Presidential primary from a proportional delegate contest to a winner-take-all one. (Texas, like most Southern and several Upper-Midwestern States, appeared to be Santorum country but couldn’t make him competitive on its own–let-alone if Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney could win some of its delegates.) 1 likely-important reason the Senator neglected to mention was Governor Romney’s apparent gain on his lead in his home State of Pennsylvania, a political embarrassment that could have killed not only his hopes of winning the Republican Presidential nomination this year but his political viability in the future as well. On April 4, a Public Policy Polling poll of likely Pennsylvania Primary voters gave Governor Romney a 42%-37% lead over Senator Santorum, while a Rasmussen Reports (read: Republican pseudo-populist) poll of (what its obscure methodology judges to be) likely voters found Santorum still leading Romney by a competitive 42%-38%. In any case by Tuesday, April 10th there were exactly 2 weeks to go until the Pennsylvania Republican primary, and Governor Romney had (er, unaffiliated pro-Romney super-PACs had) truckloads of cash for negative TV ads calling Senator Santorum’s Conservative credentials into question. Such negative TV ads (brought to you by…whomever) almost certainly allowed Romney to avoid an embarrassing primary defeat at Santorum’s hands in proletarian but very socially-Conservative Ohio, and possibly even in equally-proletarian but definitely less socially-Conservative Michigan–which is Romney’s home State. In any case, Senator Santorum, who has made his Presidential bid this year about his personal narrative as an exemplar of traditional moral values, seems to have seen fit to stay in the race after speculation abounded that he was injuring his party’s chances of winning the White House from the supposedly-insufferable President Barack Obama, but to have happily regained his humility when decisive professional embarrassment stared him in the face. Of course, I may be doing him a real disservice in all of this, minimizing the traumatic experience of his daughter’s hospitalization. On Friday, April 6th, Senator Santorum’s daughter Bella, who has a dangerous genetic defect in her 18th chromosome, was hospitalized with what seemed to be a recurrence of her pneumonia from January. It’s entirely possible the Senator took this compounding and incomparably more-frightening new setback as a sign–I use the term with the minimum quantity of superstition possible–that it was time to quit the field and spend time with family.
What does Senator Santorum’s better-than-expected performance in this year’s Republican Presidential Primary tell us about the Republican base in 2012? The Liberal Ironist thinks we have in fact learned something new about the Republican Party, and it wasn’t what we expected to learn: The Republican party establishment has weathered the Tea Party assault. Furthermore, for all its ongoing capacity to force issues onto the political agenda (which seems increasingly to depend on the engagement of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops), the Christian Right is sliding from the center towards the periphery of the Republican Party.
In fact, Governor Romney’s relatively anemic lead among the Republican Presidential hopefuls since the start of 2011 aside, the fact is that he started the Republican Primary season around mid-February last year with about 19% of the (then-uninformed) Republican electorate supporting him, and he has about 40% of the Republican electorate committed to him now. He is more than halfway to having enough delegates for the nomination, and as things stand the remaining primary and caucus States will provide these for him easily.
When Senator Santorum began to break out into the lead in several February primaries in the wake of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s recurring personality and past marital problems, there were those who argued that he posed a challenge of a fundamentally-different nature to Governor Romney, giving voice to the anxieties of the shattered blue collar heartland, places like his home State of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Governor Romney’s own home State of Michigan. Senator Santorum, so this persuasive argument went, waxed nostalgic for the white-picket-fence society of the 1950s, and recognized that the New Deal politics of that era were necessary to sustain the suburban working-class and middle class nuclear family ideal of that time. The chaos of our irreverent and increasingly-fragmented culture is the result of the great dispossession of our proletariat due to corporate outsourcing and wealth-agglomerating high finance, and Senator Santorum knows this trend and embodies the dissent against it, thus representing a profound challenge to Governor Romney’s pursuit of the Republican Presidential candidacy if not President Obama’s pursuit of reelection.
This narrative turned out to be wrong. It’s true that Senator Santorum pointedly tailored his economic plan to favor manufacturers, but he proposed to do so by eliminating manufacturers’ income taxes rather than through some shrewd and positive industrial policy. The campaign cosmetics sustain this narrative equally poorly: Rather than stick to some brilliant narrative of Americans’ growing economic insecurity and seeing the breakdown of the family and of more traditional lifestyles as a consequence of our somewhat-nomadic and dispossessed lives today, Senator Santorum crudely attacked President Obama as a “snob” for recommending that all Americans earn a college degree. He attacked President Obama for reading prepared speeches–well–and himself often had trouble expressing coherent ideas. (In response to this, Conservative Washington Post op-ed writer Michael Gerson compellingly defended reading prepared speeches to one’s audience over what we naively call “speaking from the heart,” offering one of Senator Santorum’s own rambling and forgettable speeches as the cautionary tale.)
The biggest problem with the narrative that Senator Santorum had captured the dispossessed Middle America of mid-20th century life was his clear rejection by the proletarians for whose benefit his campaign was supposedly crafted: Michigan, Ohio, Illinois and Wisconsin all voted for Governor Romney over Santorum. Illinois and Wisconsin weren’t even close.
The Wikipedia entry on the 2012 Republican Presidential Primaries has a good map of primary results by county. On this map the orange represents counties won by Governor Romney (their small number belies his massive lead in both the popular vote and pledged delegates), the green counties were won by Senator Santorum, the purple counties were won by Speaker Gingrich, and the yellow counties were won by Dr. Paul. From the map the narrative unfolds: The Republican electorates of the States of the Deep South, the less-industrialized Upper-Midwest, and the Great Plains all voted for Not-Romney. Actually, only 2 of those States’ Republicans voted to nominate someone other than Senator Santorum for President–South Carolina and Georgia, both for Gingrich.
My theory (and it’s not original, though it has been understated) is that social Conservatives (except Mormons) have been leading the effort to champion an alternative to Governor Romney. Thus, political eulogies granting Senator Santorum a grudging respect for holding out much longer than anyone expected in this primary are missing the point entirely: If a man crosses a great distance riding on an elephant, we shouldn’t conclude he has a lot of endurance.
Senator Santorum’s social Conservative bona fides are better-established than those of the many other Republican Presidential hopefuls from this primary season, with the possible exception of Ms. Bachmann’s. The fact that he didn’t get a strong showing in the polls or with the electorate until February–and then by default after Speaker Gingrich’s campaign collapsed–actually says little for him. Once he secured that support base, he never exhibited either the inclination nor the facility to transcend it. The map is quite revealing: Senator Santorum increasingly parodied himself as the primary season went on, social Conservatives ate it up, and the rest of the Republican Party concluded that Governor Romney really was going to be their nominee after all.
So, with all the talk of Tea Party this and anti-establishment that, it really looks like we’ve seen a shake-up among elite factions within the Republican Party. Recent, very-contrived gestures to restrict contraceptive access aside, the Republican Party may be in the midst of a prophylaxis of sorts with the Christian Right. Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) has apparently captured the lead of the party’s economic and government-sizing agenda (unless and until a President Romney should take advantage of his newly-won political space to send Ryan a rejoinder), but between the Senator McCain’s defeat of Governor Huckabee in the 2008 Primary, the disciplined anti-Federal Government Republican message in the 2010 Midterm Elections, and now Governor Romney’s defeat of Senator Santorum, the power of the Christian Right has fallen far and fast since the born-gain George W. Bush Presidency ended in chaos and disgrace.
Grassroots nothing. We’ve just seen a drawn-out contest between an establishment man favored by the country clubs and an establishment man favored by the Church. The country clubs won, and the ultimate result was never seriously challenged. The Christian Right is much weaker than it appears to be, most of its momentum simply the inertia of a mass hurtling through space. The Republican Party is for business.