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Explaining Santorum’s Surge
Social conservatives feel marginalized.

Glitter-bombed at a rally in Blaine, Minn., February 7, 2012

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Artur Davis

You could have gotten a decent bet ten years ago that Rick Santorum would emerge as a finalist for the Republican presidential nomination circa 2012: He had the telegenic presence, the savvy required to dislodge incumbents in a fiercely competitive environment like Pennsylvania, and a reliably conservative record that was middle-class-friendly. Then the 2006 midterm intervened and Santorum’s fortunes seemed destroyed.

It wasn’t just that Santorum lost in 2006; that year was lethal for many Republican officeholders. It was the size of the loss — almost 20 points — and the trail of baggage from the race: a clumsy response to attacks that he had “gone Washington” and was barely in the state; impolitic comments on homosexuality; and a poorly run campaign that never seemed combat-ready. Instead of being offered a sinecure in the middle tier of the Bush White House, or getting a head start on the next governor’s race, Santorum faded into the oblivion of lobbying and consulting that is Washington’s graveyard.

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That he has been resurrected, and has a genuine pathway to his party’s nomination, is equal parts perseverance and the unintended consequence of a weak, flawed field. The perseverance part is no small thing: Occupying the afterthought slot, and making the most of ten-attendee campaign events, is a demeaning kind of existence that can make a man choke on the “when I am president” line. But the larger part of the saga is that there is a vacuum in the top ranks of the GOP, and circumstances are requiring Republicans to fill that vacuum quickly.

Liberals are convinced that the Republican party is a captive of social conservatives who pine for a reconstitution of the early Sixties. The reality is that the elected Republicans who prioritize social issues tend to be buried in state legislatures or on the congressional back-benches. In contrast, the party’s congressional and presidential-caliber elite have been fixated for a generation on an economic agenda, and typically regard the values debate as a distraction. The party has not nominated a candidate since Reagan who made repeal of Roe v. Wade a point of focus (and it was his taped voice, not his actual presence, that anti-Roe demonstrators in D.C. received every January during the Eighties). Republican ideological enforcers, from Grover Norquist to the Tea Party, are free-market crusaders bent on limiting government, not growing its capacity to shape the culture.

That history explains why an open Republican nomination fight did not produce a top-tier social conservative. It clarifies why the conservative case against Barack Obama was, for most of 2011, a predominately economic one tied to Obamacare and big spending, and why the rare ventures into cultural territory — Gingrich on judges, Perry on school prayer — were fleeting and ineffectual.

But 2012 is taking on a different coloring. The economy is hardly robust, but is not cratering, either. An administration that assiduously dodged the culture wars for three years has plunged headfirst into a fight over contraception and Catholic hospitals. The Ninth Circuit’s ruling on gay marriage prefigures a Supreme Court ruling on the issue. One of the nation’s largest abortion providers, Planned Parenthood, just routed a respected, mainstream breast-cancer charity in a fight that left pro-life forces looking marginalized.



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