Why the Republican 'Establishment' Can't Stomach Rick Santorum

A Santorum nomination would be guaranteed to blow up the party by focusing on the wrong issues at the wrong time.

By SHARE

While winning big in Alabama and Mississippi, Rick Santorum has also swept some other important primaries of late—the magazine primaries—picking up the enthusiastic support of Bill Kristol and other conservative editors and writers who think the former Pennsylvania senator is the real deal.

I am a conservative who has worked for Republicans in the Republican National Committee, Senate, White House, and California governor's office. I guess that makes me an "establishment Republican." To paraphrase Samuel Goldwyn, if Rick Santroum is what you want, then include me out.

Why do so many Republicans with political experience shudder so at the thought of Rick Santorum as our party's standard-bearer?

[See a collection of political cartoons on Rick Santorum.]

After all, Rick Santroum is prolife. But then, so am I.

He's prodefense? So am I.

Skeptical of the regulatory state? Check.

Budget-cutter? True, Santorum was an earmark enthusiast, but he makes an articulate case against the budgetary incontinence of the Obama administration.

Moreover, he generates real enthusiasm with his base and can connect with blue-collar folks in the Midwest we used to call Reagan Democrats.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Is Rick Santorum More Electable than Mitt Romney?]

Why, then, can't I go there?

I couldn't define it until I recently read Mark Twain's account of his return to Hannibal, Missouri, in Life on the Mississippi.

Twain wrote:

The Model Boy of my time—we never had but the one—was perfect: perfect in manners, perfect in dress, perfect in conduct, perfect in filial piety, perfect in exterior godliness; but at bottom he was a prig; and as for the contents of his skull, they could have changed place with the contents of a pie, and nobody would have been the worse off for it but the pie.

As for the contents of Santorum's skull, I see not pie-filling but a zest for culture war. Launching a culture war now would fracture the Republican Party, while striking independent voters as massively beside-the-point with near 9 percent unemployment and an international situation pregnant with danger.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Catholic contraception controversy.]

In the face of such a simple political target as President Obama, Santorum simply cannot stay on message. He and his people feel compelled to go beyond the issue of religious liberty to let us know that he believes contraception is morally wrong. I respect his right to that belief—and I join him in passionately upholding the right of the Catholic Church not to be coerced into acting against its doctrine on contraception. But that doesn't mean I embrace that belief itself. I don't. And I sure don't want to hear about contraception from the bully pulpit of the White House—neither do tens of millions of other Republicans, many of them Catholics.

Or take Santorum's strange denouncement of President Obama as a "snob" for wanting people to go to college. Or his odd diatribe against John F. Kennedy over his classic speech on separation of church and state. Both statements may contain many yeasty issues and fine distinctions—all of them are irrelevant to beating Obama.

And really, how tone-deaf do you have to be to launch an out-of-the-blue attack on JFK?

Like the Model Boy, Santorum is divisively pure. Such purity cannot win because it cannot command a coalition. And the key to a coalition is acceptance of people who share your basic objectives but who are not like you.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt repeatedly won the presidency by stitching together a coalition of Northern liberals and segregationist southerners who shared a belief in a stronger role for government. Ronald Reagan won two terms with his "big tent" of southern conservatives, blue-collar voters in the Midwest, and Western libertarians. Some avid Reagan supporters wanted to change the Constitution to re-establish school prayer. Other avid Reagan supporters legalized prostitution in Nevada.

The Reagan coalition may have frayed, but it remained together because everyone in the tent wanted smaller government and an end to Communism.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

A winning Republican campaign today would have to bring together evangelicals, libertarians, defense conservatives, economic conservatives, and Tea Party enthusiasts united against Obama. Then it would have to move independents disaffected from Obama—but not if they are scared away by Rick Santorum.

Santorum, chastened by the loss of Ohio, is visibly struggling to stay on the economic message. But there always seems to be yet another strange observation suppressed behind those pursed lips. He can't keep it under wraps. Count on it. A Santorum nomination would be guaranteed to blow up the party by focusing on the wrong issues at the wrong time.

Twain ended his riff on the Model Boy thusly:

This fellow's reproachlessness was a standing reproach to every lad in the village. He was the admiration of all the mothers, and detestation of all their sons. I was told what became of him, but as it was a disappointment to me, I will not enter into details. He succeeded in life.

Santorum has already succeeded in life. He's gone far enough.

  • See pictures of the 2012 GOP candidates
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly: an insiders to politics and policy
  • Follow the Thomas Jefferson Street blog on Twitter at @TJSBlog.