Was Santorum Successful or Just Lucky

by Jonah Goldberg

Dear Reader (including those of you who didn’t miss their flight to New Hampshire like I did and are not now sitting at Reagan National Airport waiting five hours for the next one),

It was a first for me: Charles Krauthammer snapped at me on Special Report, “Give me a break!”

The context matters a bit. Charles and Bret Baier – praise be upon them – both subscribe to the view that Santorum’s retail-politicking doggedness in Iowa had finally paid off. While I don’t want to denigrate Santorum’s impressive work ethic and hustle, I don’t buy it, at least not entirely. I think Santorum’s political victory in Iowa (though not technically a win) was largely attributable to the fact that he was the last non-Mitt left standing and unscathed. The race to find a non-Romney has been a game of musical chairs, and Santorum was in a great spot when the music stopped. Yes, he might deserve to be the conservative alternative to Romney, but as Clint Eastwood says in Unforgiven, “Deserve ain’t got nothin’ to do with it.”

(The narrow context of Charles’s exclamation stemmed from the fact that he thought I was saying Santorum was no more qualified to be the frontrunner than Herman Cain – which wasn’t my point at all.)

Obviously, there’s a chicken-egg dynamic at work. If Santorum hadn’t worked so hard at the retail politicking, he might not have been in a position to take advantage of the Newtastrophe (“Newtplosion”?) in Iowa. When Newt surged last month, everyone said his timing couldn’t have been better. If you’re going to surge, surge late, goes the conventional wisdom. Townhall magazine’s cover for January features Newt vs. Mitt with the tagline “Gingrich: The last non-Romney standing.” Well, they – we – were wrong. Think of it this way: Remember when Indiana Jones is escaping that South American temple and he manages to slide under the closing door in the nick of time? The audience thinks he just made it with not a moment to spare. But wait – then he grabs his hat! The hat is Santorum.

Okay, don’t think of it that way. But you get my point.

Santorum may now translate his deserved/undeserved victory into even more political success. But he’s a fool if he takes it for granted. Rick Perry took it for granted that he deserved to be a frontrunner because he’s Rick Perry from Texas, dammit. Newt Gingrich took it for granted that he was going to be the nominee, because the polls and the guiding hand of History spoke to him the way goat guts talked to Greek priests.

They all blew it because they were unprepared to take advantage of their luck. Santorum’s in an even trickier spot, because it may just be too difficult to exploit his luck now, but at least he’s proven that he doesn’t take anything for granted. In that sense, at least, he earned his win.

Iowahhhhhhhh!

I don’t want to sound to sound hyper-cynical (I want to hide my hyper-cynicism just enough so that it sounds like objective-yet-biting analysis), but one of the reasons I am skeptical about the Santorum-earned-his-win line is that it’s in everyone’s interest to subscribe to it.

Obviously Santorum wants to believe it. Between believing that a year of tireless campaigning on the ideas you hold most dear bore fruit or believing that you in effect won the lottery, which do you think is the more attractive prospect? In a similar vein, my hunch is that most rich and powerful men like to think that their Hawaiian Tropic model trophy wives married them because of their fantastic sense of humor and sex-Ninja bedroom skills. And, conversely, the model likes to think she landed the big kahuna because of her searing intellect, commitment to the environment, and astounding skill at making potholders and candlesticks from 100 percent recycled materials.

A related point could be made – nay, will be made! – about Barack Obama and George W. Bush. Obama always discounted the fact that his initial success had less to do with his ideas or compelling arguments and more to do with the fact that voters simply wanted a change and he was the most change-y plausible candidate. George W. Bush, meanwhile, benefited enormously from polls in 1998-9 that reflected nostalgia for his father, not support for him. It didn’t matter – both men exploited advantages they didn’t deserve, which is what smart politicians do.

Anyway, back to Iowa. Santorum’s not alone in having an interest in promulgating the idea that he earned his win through old-fashioned politics. Gingrich subscribes to it because it not only helps to explain why he cratered there, but also lets him denounce Romney’s allegedly outrageous campaign tactics. Romney likes the idea because it enables him to claim that Iowa was a minor part of his “national campaign.” But most of all, the press and the Iowa hacktocracy are deeply invested in the idea.

In the last few months, we kept hearing from reporters how sad it was that the old Iowa model was shrinking in our rearview mirror, giving way to the hideous megaplex of national debates and viral videos. Or something. I remember NBC’s Chuck Todd saying about a week before the caucuses that Iowa was only then starting to resemble the traditional model. Reporters like the traditional model. They get to eat fried butter and pork chops on a stick in the traditional model.

The only people more invested in the traditional model than reporters are the Iowa political class. Look, I’m sure Terry Brandstad’s a nice guy, and I’ll take their word for it that he’s a pretty good governor. But I am overjoyed that I don’t have to hear his mind-numbingly banal cheerleading for Iowa any more. As a Republican pundit, Branstad is hard to distinguish from Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (Wasserman-Schultz is the blonde), and as an Iowa booster, he reminds me of the mayor in Jaws who wants to keep the beaches open no matter what. It’s all so transparent.

So when Rick Santorum runs the old-fashioned way – reaffirming the glorious, democratic, republican virtues of corn-fueled campaigning – of course the Iowa hacktocracy is going to celebrate. “See! That’s how it’s done! You’ve got to put in the time!”

I’m not saying that everyone who subscribes to the view that Santorum pulled it out because of his pluck and nerve is wrong. I’m just saying that we should be watchful about readily believing that line simply because it reaffirms what we – or at least some of us – want to hear.

It . . . Is . . . Alive!

Oh, there’s yet another constituency that wants to believe that Rick Santorum’s success was based purely on the merits – people who subscribe to Santorum’s political philosophy. Here’s Michael Gerson this morning, pounding the drum for his cause:

But perhaps the most surprising result of the Iowa caucuses was the return of compassionate conservatism from the margins of the Republican stage to its center. Rick Santorum is not just an outspoken social conservative; he is the Republican candidate who addresses the struggles of blue-collar workers and the need for greater economic mobility.

Gerson is certainly right that Santorum’s win has put compassionate conservatism back in the limelight for the first time in years. Indeed, as I told someone the next morning, my biggest problem with Santorum’s surge is that it represents a comeback for compassionate conservatism, only he actually really believes in it. Unfortunately, the person I told this to was a barista at Starbucks who hadn’t been talking to me. She responded, “Huh?” and I said, “Oh, sorry. My internal monologue dampener is on the fritz again.” At which point the small German man living in my head named Fritz said “Ja! And it is killing me!Gott im Himmel!”

The great thing about the limelight is that it makes it a lot easier to hit whatever’s in the limelight with a great big mallet. So where’d I put that mallet?

I’m not saying I disagree with all of Santorum’s ideas, and I certainly don’t think his concerns about the working class and the family are illegitimate or unfounded. I’ll even admit that my biggest problem with compassionate conservatism is the label itself. Yes, it bothered me that Bush (and Gerson) were insinuating that conservatives who disagree with their policies lack compassion. But my problem with the label goes deeper than that.

The very idea of compassionate conservatism buys into the bedrock fallacy of Great Society and New Deal liberalism – that the quality of your soul is directly correlated to your commitment to bloated, inefficient government programs. It embraces the fundamental category error of progressivism, the idea that the government can love you. Some of Santorum’s ideas may be sound. And he may be driven by love for his fellow man. But government is a poor conductor of love.

In Memoriam

In the last G-File, I was pretty gloomy for reasons I don’t need to rehearse here. Alas, things have only gotten worse since then. Right after Christmas we got news that one of my wife’s sisters had taken a terrible and sudden turn for the worse in her fight against cancer. My wife left immediately to be with her, while I stayed behind to take care of our daughter and the animals. Jessica has been out there ever since, caring for Paulie as best she could. Paulie died yesterday. She was a beautiful, brilliant, quirky, funny, unbelievably opinionated woman who was always a joy to be around. I’d write about her more, but it’s too soon and I’m already crying in an airport trying to type this.

Rest in peace.

Sorry, but that’s it for today.

The G-File

By Jonah Goldberg