Yesterday’s Michigan primary, in which the one-time dark horse Rick Santorum came within a hairsbreadth of beating Mitt Romney in his home state (his father was its governor) will have the elites in Republican party circles racing frantically for their checkbooks, in the hope of putting out the prairie fire that is Santorum’s burgeoning candidacy by spraying it with attack ads.
They will cover their anxiety with a thick coating of smugness. When I bring up Rick Santorum, such people adopt a pose of superior worldly wisdom, easing back in their imaginary leather chairs to nod condescendingly at me, like an overly eager teenager whose hapless idealist zeal required their prudent counsel:
“Of course it’s exciting for you to have a candidate out there addressing the issues that stir your heart. That’s the sort of thing that got us all into politics in the first place. Ah yes, I remember it well. And it’s a fine, fine thing that someone is speaking out. Got to put some fire into troops every once in a while, keep up morale and all that sort of business. But really, when you get right down to it, I mean… electing a president is a sport for grown-ups. You must see that, young man, or you’ll never get ahead. The best is the enemy of the good. Politics is the art of the possible. Better half a loaf than none. A bird in the hand….”
Let me cut Bertie Wooster off before he gets to “four legs good, two legs bad.” I don’t plan to write here about the virtues of idealism versus realism, or even the fact that our nation’s survival turns on the social issues Rick Santorum addresses with eloquence unparalleled by any candidate since Reagan. (Though I’d like to point out that Western Europe isn’t threatened primarily by its debt or fiscal policies, but by demographic collapse, family breakdown, and unrestricted immigration—precisely the kind of social issues that “realists” dismiss as fodder for cranks.) I’ll pretend, for the next 1200 words, that America could chug along just fine with legal abortion through all nine months, homosexual marriage, and the liquidation of every Catholic institution in civil society via Obama’s contraception mandate. Let’s say that the libertarians and pro-business philistines are right, that faith and families mean exactly nothing in the cohesion of a country—which really is just a mechanism for enforcing legal contracts and keeping the looters off the streets. We are all just interchangeable units of economic production, and if we only learned to act in our enlightened self-interest and kept the government off our backs, the mechanism we call America would run as a perpetual motion machine.
Let’s posit all that for a moment. The fact is that anyone really committed to getting Barack Obama out of office—which is, after all, the point of nominating a candidate—would be better off voting for Rick Santorum than the choice of the “realists,” Mitt Romney. For all the hysteria generated by Maureen Dowd, Bill Maher, Dan Savage, and the other intellectual leaders of modern America about Santorum’s “dangerous” views, and all the savage attacks that they will launch at him in an election campaign for his religion, his marriage, the number of kids he brought into the world, or how the Santorums mourned the death of one of their infants, Santorum is much more likely to win in November. The Left knows that, which is precisely why they’re waxing hysterical over Santorum’s rise in the polls—as they did forty years ago when Ronald Reagan was challenging Gerald Ford. If Democrats really thought (as some pretend) that Rick Santorum was the candidate they’d find easiest to beat, they wouldn’t be attacking him so viciously; instead, they’d be crossing their fingers and praying (to Moloch, I guess) that Republicans would be dumb enough to nominate the right-wing counterpart to Dennis Kucinich. If that’s what they really thought. But they don’t.
They know that Santorum comes across as what he is: a blue-collar kid who made good, a true-believing conservative who knows how to compromise (sometimes when we wish he wouldn’t), a faithful but not self-righteous Christian who can draw both Catholics and Protestants, whose fervent support for Israel might even attract Jewish votes. He’s a powerful public speaker, whose principled talk of natural law taps into the great American mainstream, via Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln, back through Thomas Jefferson, to the medieval schoolmen and Thomas Aquinas. He deals in real ideas, which he actually understands, and takes with great seriousness. If he kept his cool, he could crush Barack Obama in the debates.
That whiff of Reagan which they sense is precisely what has excited conservative voters about Santorum, what drove him from single digits, with almost no money, to challenge the machine-tooled, massively funded, Establishment-sponsored campaign of Mitt Romney. Against this corporate juggernaut, Santorum has wielded the only weapons he has: ideas. Core ideas, that go to the heart of what we expect from government and what we hope for our country’s future. We want the government to protect our basic rights—like the right to life, to practice our faith, to raise our children without gross interference by secular bureaucrats. We need the state to draw bright lines between the building blocks of a normal society (like marriage) and bizarre, unnatural practices. (How else to describe the marriage of two men, the production of embryos in laboratories such that hundreds of thousands are stored in freezers, the Girl Scouts’ accepting transvestites… the organized assault on the normal goes on and on.) Of all the candidates still in the race, only Santorum has had the consistent courage to call such things what they are—immoral—and to prove this not by reference to chapter and verse in the Bible, but through sound and persuasive arguments based on reason and human nature. This is precisely what we need from a leader in these, our darkening days. As bishops begin to worry that real persecution might take place in our generation, resistance to its beginnings ought to be led by a man who believes in what we defend, and knows how to articulate his reasons.
Such a man will fire the troops with enthusiasm, and win the respect even of those who don’t see the point of discussing social issues. He’ll ensure a heavy turnout of Evangelical Christians and faithful Catholics, and even attract some support from otherwise hostile voters—like the hundreds of thousands of black and Hispanic Americans who turned out in California in support of normal marriage.
Santorum’s main opponent, Mitt Romney, is something quite different. His casual, callous flip-flops on profound moral issues send a quite different message to voters: Here is a cool, detached technocrat who knows how to make the engine run—and doesn’t care where you’re planning to drive it. The Grand Canyon, Gomorrah, it’s none of his concern—here are your keys, enjoy the ride. Mitt Romney can look at a subject like abortion or religious freedom (he forced Catholic hospitals to dispense abortifacients in Massachusetts, let’s remember) with the same professional indifference as the details of the curling competition at the Olympics. Whatever job it is you want done, he promises he can accomplish it. And he can. Romney proved, as promised, a solidly pro-choice Massachusetts governor. He promised those voters government-sponsored healthcare, and he provided it. He promised them leadership on “global warming” and they got it. Then when Republican national voters wanted something different, he changed his pants from flannel to corduroy and offered it. Pro-life, small government, conservative? I can sing that—hand me the sheet music. It’s all perfectly in tune.
I’m tempted to ask, “What next?” and wonder how Mitt Romney would act when a seat opened up on the Supreme Court, and the audience he was playing to—the media, the pro-choice Establishment Republicans, the “legal scholarship community”—called for a different tune. Would he remember his promises to us, the rubes and Bible thumpers he wooed in the primaries?
But the question is irrelevant, because Mitt Romney cannot win. To be elected president, running against a skilled campaigner with a solid base and an economy on the upswing, a candidate needs the power to motivate people—to make them care, really care, whether or not he wins. And that isn’t true of Romney. Not too many people hate the idea of Mitt Romney as president, but nobody is excited by it, either. Everyone who votes for Romney sees him as an acceptable compromise candidate, someone whom other people will kind of like, maybe… they hope. He’s the dull, inoffensive movie you might get a group of people to go to, provided it isn’t raining. He’s the gift you return on December 26, the book you never throw out but never read, the person you date once then offhandedly forget—just as you forget any technician who did his job but made no impression. Mitt Romney is Howard Johnson’s. He is milquetoast. He is Spam.
Some Republicans think they’re playing it safe by nominating this plate of indeterminate potted meat, whom circumstances have molded at various moments in his career in various shapes (the pro-choice rival to Edward Kennedy, the pragmatic liberal Republican, and now the me-too conservative). They warn that a Santorum race could flame out like Barry Goldwater’s in 1964. Yeah, sure, it’s true that this could happen. But at least a Santorum campaign would have a chance, would have some voters who cared enough to turn out (rain or shine or plague of frogs) to cast their vote. And remember what Goldwater’s candidacy created: The modern conservative movement. Nominate Mitt Romney, and we know exactly what will happen. It happened to Gerald Ford in 1976, George Bush in 1992, Bob Dole in 1996, and John McCain in 2008: Select a presidential candidate who has no other reason for running except “I’m not that Democrat over there,” whose creed is mere ambition, whose core is mush, and reap your reward: a country that looks at you, shrugs, and picks the other guy. And all such campaigns leave behind is a long trail of consultants, who’ve cashed their checks.