Politics

Rick Santorum, the latest GOP Man

By J Brooks Spector 15 February 2012

For much of the past year, the Daily Maverick has focused on the presumptive Republican Party frontrunner for that party’s nomination, Mitt Romney, even as we’ve looked at those who have faltered such as Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Jon Huntsman and Herman Cain. But now, of course, the field has narrowed to four – Romney, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. Santorum: who is this latest challenger? By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

According to the newest polling, Rick Santorum is or is close to taking the lead against Mitt Romney among Republicans in key states like Michigan that has its primary on 28 February – as well as nationally. On the face of it, it seems Michigan should be Romney territory – he has deep roots in that state. After all, his father was a successful auto manufacturing company executive in Detroit, as well as Michigan’s governor in the late 1960s. Mitt Romney effectively grew up in that state.

But Michigan has changed significantly over the years. The US automobile industry has had a near-death experience as a result of international competition – as well as from the 2007-8 financial crisis. GM and Chrysler virtually went under until automotive industry bailout funds pulled them back from the brink. But even before that, the auto industry had been in decline for years, losing market share and shedding thousands of jobs in the main companies, as well as among the hundreds of subcontractors and parts manufacturers that fed the big three manufacturers.

In fact, the people Santorum is connecting with are those who would have been the backbone of the skilled and semiskilled workforce that used to populate Detroit and other manufacturing cities of Michigan and the Midwest. According to the newest Pew Research Centre data, Santorum is now beating Romney significantly with self-described Tea Party supporters and conservatives, white evangelicals and those with less than a university degree. These represent an important slice of people who most likely would have been Democratic supporters when Mitt Romney’s father was governor. Since then, they have become an important part of the Republican Party’s base. Economic issues are important to them, but up until this point they have been saying that social values issues (such as anti-abortion legislation, anti-gay/lesbian rights, and a return to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule in the military) are at least as important to them. So far.

But to win convincingly in Michigan beyond his initial support base, Santorum is now hoping to move the political conversation away from the social and cultural issues that have dominated his quest so far (and given him some bumps and bruises), and towards the economy for the fast-approaching primary in the recession-plagued battleground state of Michigan. Or, as Bill Ballenger, editor of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter has written, “The economy and jobs and unemployment are all that anybody talks about in Michigan, and Santorum needs to talk about them, too.”

But what kind of a candidate is Santorum such that he has assembled support so quickly despite Romney’s years of wooing and from Newt Gingrich’s seductive pitch? He entered the political arena in Pennsylvania in 1991 after earning a BA, MBA and JD degrees from Penn State, Pittsburgh and Dickinson universities. After two terms as a congressman, he won a 1994 Senate seat from Pennsylvania, only to be trounced 12 years later in 2006.

Santorum’s official day job is Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Centre, a rightwing think tank he helped establish and where he says he has been writing a book on the “gathering storm” of the 21st century – “the challenges posed by radical Islamic fascism and its growing alliances around the world.” An earlier book, It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good, has suddenly become a topic of public debate. Santorum argued in it that radical feminism has been a key part of a social movement that is out to destroy traditional family life. While he was a senator, Santorum says he championed efforts to counter the threat of radical Islam, to protect victims of religious persecution, and to promote democracy and religious liberty around the world. His legislative legacy includes measures like the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act and the Abandoned Mine Lands Reform Act (Pennsylvania has a great many old, abandoned mine shafts), as well as the Iran Freedom Support Act.

He and his wife, Karen, also a lawyer, have seven children whom they have been home schooling for years, whenever he has not been fighting the impending threat of radical sharia law. But like so many other congressmen and senators, Santorum never actually left Washington after he was defeated in an election – he stayed on to schmooze with former colleagues on behalf of various corporate interest groups – while not pursuing his ideological agenda.

But for some people, the most interesting thing about Santorum has been his near-obsessive wearing of sweater vests – or what South Africans would call sleeveless knit jerseys. In fact, they have come to define Santorum’s public persona so richly that Slate recently published a deconstructionist tract on this. According to Slate, Santorum’s sweater vests are now the single best-known fact about the candidate. They have their own Twitter account, a Facebook page, YouTube videos and fundraising campaign. Really.

Now, Santorum isn’t the first public figure to use the sweater vest as his signature style object – TV newscaster Dan Rather wore them to boost his faltering ratings by projecting a warmer image, for example. On Chandler Bing of “Friends”, the vest signifies the aura of a lovable loser, even as with Dirty Harry, the vest whispers rogue element. On Brad Pitt it says tough guy. For many observers, the sweater vest has become a safe way to signal individuality – just like the bow tie, only more manly.

And what does Santorum mean with his trademark garments? Some argue he is using them non-verbally to align himself with the common man. But The Washington Post says Santorum has told intimates that he wears them to appear more mature. But to CNN he has punned “This is my second amendment vest: the right to bare arms,” a puckish reference to the Constitution’s second amendment right to own firearms. But regardless of any deep semiotic meaning, it has become his trademark, just as much as a white, curved swoosh stripe stands for a certain sports footwear company.

But beyond his success as a sartorial trendsetter, does Santorum also have a chance to grab the nomination from Romney? And despite his recent rise in poll numbers, does Santorum have the stamina and financing to go through the remaining primaries?

New Republic reporter Ed Kilgore argues that if Santorum’s surge can be attributed to any one thing, it is the no rules cage fighting between Romney and Gingrich driven by all those negative ads funded through those superPAC groups and their donors. The onslaught in South Carolina, Florida and Nevada left Santorum as the only candidate who was still holding strong personal positives according to the polls. Kilgore adds, “With Santorum now dominating the very voter categories Gingrich was winning prior to Florida; with no life-giving televised candidate debates on the immediate horizon; and with Sheldon Adelson showing no signs of writing another gigantic check for his Super PAC, Newt may have run out of steam for the third and final time.” That would leave it as a mano-a-mano fight between Romney and Santorum (with Ron Paul continuing to collect his libertarian-leaning Republicans, of course).

Fortunately for Santorum, the conservative opinion leaders who ultimately helped Romney bring down Gingrich – and whose backing he will need down the road – have said they do not want further negative energy in this campaign. Already the campaign is thick with pleas – public and private both – that Romney should go easy on Santorum, in part because he isn’t dragging behind him a complex personal history or time shilling for conservative nemesis Freddie Mac, the federal mortgage bond guarantee body. Given Romney’s sagging favourability ratings among Republican primary as well as all general-election voters, he can’t afford to take the heat of  “going nuclear” on yet another opponent, the argument goes.

Ultimately, however, Mitt Romney’s campaign machinery and funding may be his saving grace. He can still flood the airwaves in Arizona and Michigan to pull out a pair of wins and regain momentum. If Romney does come through that way on 28 February, the path becomes much tougher for Santorum in the weeks ahead. On 6 March, voters in 10 states go to polls or caucus meetings on the same day. Santorum’s conservative competitor, Gingrich, is about to make a final stand in states like Oklahoma, Tennessee and Georgia, and Santorum certainly won’t win Massachusetts – and neither he nor Gingrich are on the ballot in Virginia. Santorum may pull it off in Ohio similarly to the way he may win in Michigan – but here again, it is a big state with lots of expensive media markets that require cash to make a difference.

However, the very qualities that have taken conservative values voters away from Romney fairly consistently still cannot negate the fact Santorum lost his last contested general election by 19 points when he sought re-election to the Senate in 2006. And, looking ahead to November 2012, if he actually became the candidate, his zealotry on social issues would energise pro-choice and gay-rights activists more than almost anyone since America’s very own Savonarola, Pat Buchanan. In addition, Santorum’s connections to influence peddling, although they have barely been explored in the primaries so far, make it a dead certainty the Democrats are digging fast and furious. Even if this doesn’t come up in the primaries very much, Democrats will use this to speak to those for whom economics is less central to their voting.

Ultimately, however, the most interesting reason to think Santorum will be a brief anti-Romney flare is the outcome from the recent presidential straw poll at the American Conservative Union’s annual CPAC conference. With this arena, while the audience cheered Santorum’s rhetoric, the secret ballot went to Mitt Romney. DM




Photo: Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum pulls off his jacket while speaking to the crowd at a campaign rally at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma, Washington on February 13, 2012. REUTERS/Anthony Bolante.

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