Politics & Policy

Romney, Santorum, and Electability

The contrast isn’t as clear-cut as it may appear.

The best case for Mitt Romney’s nomination relates to the glee Democrats express whenever any other contender surges in the Republican contest. Virtually every Democrat I know salivated at the prospect of facing another Texas politico who tends to get tongue-tied under bright lights, and who once confused Social Security with Bernie Madoff’s nastiest work; or a former Speaker whose career is soaked in scandal and influence peddling, and who gets churlish under fire. Democrats also lit up e-mail chains on Tuesday night with zeal over Rick Santorum’s finish, and with snide observations about how the harder edges of his social conservatism will play with swing voters.

Democrats don’t want Romney. But it is striking how much of the Romney fear factor is a reductionist, fairly lazy analysis based on the thinnest of factors. One element is the state of current polls, which generally put Romney a little ahead or a little behind Barack Obama, while no one else is close. However, early polls are gauzy, out-of-focus snapshots, and they illustrate mainly that the line of attack on Romney has largely been that he is insufficiently conservative, a charge that doesn’t exactly jar non-conservatives. Another basis for the fear is the notion that Romney has been vetted, has a largely error-free career, and has an executive polish that is not tarnished by votes in Washington.

#ad#That’s all fair enough. The fact, however, is that Democrats have not had to strain to plan the race they would run against Romney. For four days in the week, they will paint him as a flip-flopper who has occupied both sides of a lot of ground; for three days, as an entitled tool of corporate interests who made millions doling out pink slips on behalf of a shadowy management firm.

Imagine if Axelrod and Co. had to ditch the playbook. The case for Rick Santorum — and yes, at this juncture, that phrase still feels weird — is that he is a conviction conservative with immigrant, middle-class roots who empathizes with battered places Republicans normally don’t see. If you don’t yet buy it, watch his might-as-well-be-a-victory-speech in Iowa: It was simply the best Republican rhetoric in the last decade.

The former senator powerfully articulated the case that too much entitlement weakens individual resolve; that the working and middle classes can be as endangered by unrestrained corporations as they are by big government; and that revitalizing shattered communities is a conservative enterprise too. He smartly acknowledged that neither party has exactly been preoccupied with the middle class, or the deteriorating relationship between work and reward. If it lacked the poetry and the elegant lilt of Obama’s A game, there was a clarity and directness to it that post-Reagan Republicans have struggled to find.

#page#Santorum may or may not be the right messenger, but I suspect his message last night is the only one capable of beating Obama. What Republicans have to decide is whether any aspect of that message can be delivered plausibly and compellingly by Romney, and whether Santorum can withstand the contempt and ridicule that is coming for the more provocative and confrontational side of his conservatism, the side that makes him, compared with Romney, an outright culture warrior.

There are voters Republicans need who will not join Santorum in opposing abortion rights for a teenager who has just been raped. There are swing voters who are quite skeptical that the Constitution protects a right to same-sex marriage, but who would see no point in an uphill battle to amend the Constitution to take the matter out of the hands of individual states — which is precisely what Santorum proposes. More than anything, the potential for Santorum rests on whether his skill in describing our economic anxieties, and matching them with conservative, populist solutions, was a one-time wonder or a narrative he can use to soothe the qualms about his social views.

#ad#David Brooks and Ross Douthat both suggest that there is a trove of white working-class voters, some with immigrant roots, some with Catholic and fundamentalist convictions, who actually blend their economic worries with a fear that the culture is slipping toward something they don’t recognize. If Brooks and Douthat are right, Santorum’s rhetoric could find a home with them. It just happens, as William Galston has brilliantly described in The New Republic, that these one-time members of the late-primary Hillary Clinton resistance in 2008 are the decisive class of voters: Their migration to Obama sealed his victory over John McCain, their quick disillusionment with Obama made 2010 the year of the Tea Party, and where they land this year will be all we need to know on election night this November.

One last observation about electability: There are drawn-out nomination fights that kill general-election hopes and drawn-out fights that strengthen the winner. That last possibility exists here; a Romney/Santorum face-off could advertise the strengths that the GOP’s pro-market and pro-values wings jointly bring to the debate. It may just be that Republicans have saved their best for last.

 Artur Davis served four terms in Congress representing Alabamas 7th district. 

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