Now that the Santorum campaign — the last and most durable of the non-Mitt efforts — is finally fading, a little analysis of it is warranted before it vanishes from mind. It didn’t flame out absurdly like the Bachmann, Perry, Cain, and Gingrich challenges, partly because Rick Santorum didn’t have the vulnerabilities or commit the terrible faux pas of the others, but partly also because he actually stood for something solid.
The truism has been solemnly asserted that economic issues can win the election for the Republicans, but moral issues cannot. A reasonably serviceable nominee could invoke both, and the real criterion for the effectiveness of the moral issues is the precise selection of the issues to be put to the voters.
The Democrats telegraphed the contraception offensive with George Stephanopoulos’s badgering of Mitt Romney on the subject on television as the Sebelius directive obliging Roman Catholic–affiliated institutions to insure employees’ and students’ costs for birth control, abortion-inducing drugs, and sterilization was issued. This offensive seems to have backfired, as the effort to portray it as illustrative of a resistance to the Republicans’ War on Women, rather than as a gratuitous, unconstitutional assault on a religious institution (which is what it is), has not succeeded.
But it did smoke Rick Santorum out as personally an opponent of contraception, and may have helped marginalize him within the Republican party as too vulnerable to caricature in the eyes of independent voters as an antediluvian monastic dreadnought in an unbecoming sweater vest. As with his statement that too many people aspire to go to university, with this comment he was disquietingly prone to seem like a harking-back to, at best, a William Bendix 1950s American working-class man with, to boot, a rosary in his hands.
But as my distinguished NRO colleague Mark Steyn wrote a couple of weeks ago, almost everything Santorum was proposing, including aid to the benighted American family and the equally diminished American manufacturing sector, was supported reflexively by almost all Americans 50 years ago, and is still supported by most of them, and certainly by most Republicans.
Rick Santorum’s pluck has been remarkable, as he has run for many lean months on a shoestring, through much ridicule, on what was largely seen as an antiquarian platform, and finally mounted a serious challenge to a well-funded front-runner who has been campaigning for this prize almost uninterruptedly for six years, and whose campaign bus is stuffed with well-paid professionals. He earned the credit due to an indomitable underdog and to a conviction politician, and he had, in his homely, slightly awkward, unpretentious doggedness, a gravitas, seriousness, and plausibility that set him apart from the buffoonish pizza executive, the absent-minded (“Oops”) armed jogger, and the super-flake millionaire historian emeritus of Freddie Mac.
But there has been something more to the Santorum campaign. He did not, to my knowledge, and probably would not, put it in these terms, but the confluence of his campaign with what Pope Benedict XVI specifically described as this administration’s “radical secularism” brought this country a long way closer to a showdown, a turning-up of the cards, between the continuators and apostles of a materialist age of reason, the plenitude of the Enlightenment, and those who believe that the United States is a country that tolerates dissent equably, but is fundamentally and profoundly based on Judeo-Christian principles.
The moralists and the relativists have coexisted quite comfortably, usually, in the public political arena since the country’s earliest days. Jefferson wrote of the “creator” but was a deist. Washington prayed at Valley Forge (but in those daunting circumstances, probably even Stalin would have prayed), and called for Haman’s gallows for war profiteers in the Continental Congress. Franklin and Hamilton hovered on the verge of agnosticism. Madison’s religious views are indistinct, and the only one of the principal founders who was a regularly and conventionally practicing Christian was John Adams.
Abraham Lincoln was not a fervent Presbyterian, but he was clearly, and with electrifying eloquence, a Christian. “Fondly do we hope and fervently do we pray that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away”: a line of poetry from the second inaugural. “But if God wills that all the treasure piled up by the bondsman’s 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and that every drop of blood drawn by the lash shall be repaid by a drop of blood drawn by the sword, then as was said 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said that the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” He was saying that no matter how many Union soldiers died emancipating the slaves, it was God’s will that they be emancipated.