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.
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.
The upshot is that the 40 percent of Republicans who are evangelicals, many of whom fear that their values are under siege, are stirring. Their votes are more crucial than ever for Republican candidates, who can’t count on the economy to defeat Obama. The void that is left by Romney’s history of social moderation, and the chaos in Gingrich’s past, is the one Santorum, an unmitigated values conservative, is beginning to fill.
The conventional wisdom on Santorum’s revival is that Romney is simply inspiring buyer’s remorse, or that Bain Capital and a month of gaffes on his wealth are taking their toll. These are indeed factors, but in addition, social conservatives’ stakes in this election grow stronger by the week. A culture that has historically preserved conscience as a safe haven from majoritarian sentiment is now degrading conscience as “dogma,” or bigotry, deserving of being slapped down. Religious orthodoxy is being reconceived as another special interest that has to stand in line in the public square bidding for approval.
I’ve observed before in these pages that Santorum’s brand of conservatism may be too demanding for the section of the independent electorate that leans right on social issues but is not preoccupied with them. No one seriously questions that pocketbooks first, and national security second, have decided every election in our times. But it’s worth noting that this year, conservative candidates need to take up the classic liberal challenge of asking just what kind of country, and what kind of people, we claim to be. For all of Romney’s rhetoric about the “soul of America” being at issue, his history is one of managing systems. In his one stint in power, his triumph was not changing the culture of Massachusetts, but bending its edges just enough to get by.
An argument can be made that Romney’s approach is safer, and that it might be better suited to addressing problems in a country that is not about to surrender its entitlement programs or regulations. But I will venture a guess that communities of faith, and the integrity of religious associations, may require a sterner defense — and that a brief against big government has to also address the overreach of Washington’s pronouncing church doctrine dead. Conservatives must sense that making this case is not Romney’s strong suit.
— Artur Davis served four terms in Congress representing Alabama’s 7th district.