Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and the conservative imagination, Part Two

In Part One of this series I argued that, in no small measure, Mitt Romney owes his status as his Party’s nominee-to-be to good fortune. His good fortune included the unwillingness of half a dozen or more high-profile and potentially formidable Republicans to enter the race and the inability of Rick Perry, who answered to that description and did enter, to present himself as a credible candidate.

In addition, I argued, Romney was fortunate that instead of rallying around Rick Santorum, the most formidable of the non-Romney candidates in the race, anti-Romney sentiment focused first on Michele Bachmann, then on Herman Cain, and later on Newt Gingrich. Had anti-Romney conservatives coalesced around Santorum earlier, he almost surely would have won the Iowa caucuses on the original ballot-count; might very well have ridden that momentum to victory in South Carolina; very probably would have defeated Romney in Ohio; and quite possibly would have done so in Michigan too. In this scenario, Romney and Santorum would probably be locked in a neck-in-neck contest as I write this, with Santorum perhaps the favorite.

Anti-Romney conservatives declined to embrace Santorum until it was too late even though it should have been clear early on that, as anti-Romney conservatives eventually concluded, Santorum was a better conservative candidate than Cain and Bachmann, and a better and more conservative candidate than Gingrich. In the early debates, Santorum consistently demonstrated a greater mastery of the issues, and a greater depth, than both Bachmann and Cain, a one-trick pony with his “nine-nine-nine.” And, though Gingrich debated well, it was no accident that the anti-Romney forces gravitated his way only after finding Bachmann, Cain, and Perry wanting. Gingrich carried far too much baggage and has embraced or flirted with too many non-conservative ideas.

By why didn’t the anti-Romney vote find its way to Santorum much earlier? The question is complex and not amenable to a single answer. But I believe the explanation lies partly in the tendency of conservatives to exaggerate the importance of certain insights, to the detriment of their ability realistically to assess the candidates from a more holistic conservative perspective.

One objection frequently raised against Santorum was his trouncing in the 2006 Senate race. But this was more of an “establishment” objection than an anti-Romney conservative one. Tea Party conservatives tend not to focus on electability concerns. Nor would such concerns have rationally led them to favor Herman Cain or Michele Bachmann over a candidate who won two Senate races in a very blue state, and two House races in a blue district.

From the anti-Romney conservative perspective, the more salient objections to Santorum consisted, I believe, of his lengthy time in Washington and his support for earmarks. Now, it is a valid insight that extended time in Washington often causes conservative politicians to become significantly less conservative. But this was not the case with Santorum. His voting record certainly was not perfect from a conservative standpoint, and he did carry a bit too much water for President Bush. But to reject Santorum in favor of Herman Cain based on the former Senator’s few deviations from conservatism during a decade and a half of time in Congress was to carry the “Washington is all corrupting” insight too far. Santorum was not part of the problem in Washington; he was a leader in the fight for solutions to the problem.

As for earmarking, the recently developed conservative disgust with this practice is also founded on a valid insight. But it is not an insight around which conservatives should build a religion. Would it have been better if Santorum had jeopardized his electoral chances in a blue state by opposing earmarks for Pennsylvania at a time when this was a common and largely unquestioned practice? Perhaps. Should the fact that he didn’t have caused anti-Romney conservatives to support weaker alternatives to Romney? I don’t think so.

Once it became clear that Bachmann and Cain were weaker alternatives to Romney, and once Perry crashed and burned, a good portion of the anti-Romney conservatives turned to Gingrich. Why did this happen?

Gingrich ’s rise was propelled, I believe, by his brilliant attacks on the MSM during the debates. Now, no good conservative doubts that the mainstream media possesses a strong liberal bias. But here again, it seems to me that conservatives were unduly influenced by an insight. Yes, the MSM dislikes us. No, full-throated attacks on the MSM should not elevate a seriously flawed candidate to the status of co-front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination.

Romney profited from an additional piece of luck when it came to Gingrich. It turned out that the ex-Speaker’s main source of financial support, Sheldon Adelson, despised Santorum’s social conservatism. Thus, he had an incentive to back Gingrich even after it became apparent that his man couldn’t win, which made Gingrich a spoiler as far as Santorum was concerned. We can’t attribute this to any failure of imagination on the part of anti-Romney conservative forces. It was just one of those things.

Finally, I do not want to minimize Santorum’s own shortcomings as a candidate. The former Senator might well have defeated Romney in Ohio, for example, but for his unforced errors. These consisted mostly of his excessive candor in responding to MSM questions inviting him to state his inner-most socially conservative views. Santorum should not have taken the bait.

But let’s remember that Romney made plenty of unforced errors too. Santorum’s problem was that he had much less margin for error. And his margin for error was so small because he was unable to move the anti-Romney conservative needle for so long.

Recommend this Power Line article to your Facebook friends.

Responses