Santorum: In Bush’s Shadow Print
By Mark Stricherz   
Saturday, 17 September 2011

When Rick Santorum took the stage at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, CA for the Republican presidential debate Wednesday night, it was possible to envision him as a first-tier alternative to the top four candidates in the race.

Unlike Governor Rick Perry of Texas, Santorum has never been accused of being a regional candidate. In fact, his home state helps him in a general election. As a U.S. Representative and Senator for sixteen years (1991 to 2007), Santorum represented Pennsylvania, a blue state where President Obama is more and more unpopular.

Unlike Congressman Ron Paul of Texas, Santorum has never been accused of being a fringe politician. His political reputation rests not on calls to return to the gold standard or to legalize heroin, but partly at least on reforming the welfare system and requiring states to adhere to tougher education standards for their students.

Unlike former Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, Santorum has never been accused of being a squish or a political panderer. He is an unapologetic defender of traditional values, so much so that one gay activist has waged a campaign to vilify and humiliate Santorum.

Unlike Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota, Santorum has never been accused of being a light weight. From 2000 to 2006, Santorum was the Senate Republican Conference Chairman, the third-highest ranking position among Senate Republicans.

In addition to not suffering from those candidates’ weaknesses, Santorum boasts strengths that not all of his rivals share. A hard worker, Santorum has crisscrossed the states of Iowa and South Carolina dozens of times. He is the lone cradle Catholic in the race, giving him a natural constituency among a slice of GOP primary voters. He has a compelling personal story, as he and his wife rejected the advice of some doctors to abort their son Gabriel, who was born prematurely and lived two hours outside the womb.

Yet in the 2012 Republican presidential race, Santorum is not a first-tier candidate.

Santorum registers support from 2.6 percent of GOP voters according to Real Clear Politics national polling average. Because of his low figure, organizers of the Palmetto Freedom Forum, a gathering of the top Republican candidates in Columbia, South Carolina on Labor Day, barred him from appearing. His campaign might surge, and he beat expectations in the Iowa Straw Poll last month, placing fourth. But his presidential candidacy is widely considered to be a long shot at best.

Why isn’t Santorum’s candidacy doing better? Talk with Republican consultants and strategists and their responses point to the same conclusion: Santorum has never separated himself from former President George W. Bush, who remains a divisive figure within the modern GOP. Like Hubert Humphrey in 1968 or John McCain in 2008, Santorum can’t put distance between himself and the president with whom he is allied in the public mind.

Bush and Santorum’s careers in elected office followed a similar arc. Both won a major office in the Republican year of 1994 (Bush to the statehouse in Texas; Santorum to the Senate in Pennsylvania). Both were known as a “big-government” or “compassionate” conservative who favored federal intervention in K-12 education, health care, and poverty, and the invasion of Iraq.

And in the 2006 congressional elections, both men suffered disastrous political losses; Republicans lost both houses of Congress, while Santorum fell to then-Pennsylvania state Treasurer Bob Casey, Jr. Appearing on Fox News last month, Santorum attributed his seventeen-percentage-point loss to Bush’s low approval ratings in the Keystone State, saying it was a “miserable year” for Republicans.

In the eyes of some GOP strategists, Santorum’s defeat in 2006 was a severe blow to his political career. “Santorum's biggest problem is that he got blown out in his reelection efforts a couple of years ago,” Republican strategist John Feehery said in an interview. “Nobody believes that a person who can't get reelected at the Senate level can than win at the Presidential level. He is a smart guy, but I don't think most people who contribute money will give money to a guy who lost by just a wide margin only two elections ago.”

Randy Brinson, an Alabama-based GOP consultant, said in an interview that the nature of Santorum’s defeat was debilitating. “He allowed Casey to poach voters leaning toward him (white working class and Catholic voters), and he couldn’t win support from voters beyond his rigid ideological base,” Brinson said. He added that Santorum’s defeat in 2006 contributed to the perception that as the winner of statewide races in the Republican elections of 1994 and 2000, he couldn’t withstand an unfavorable political climate.

Politicians have come back from bruising political defeats before. But unlike Richard Nixon, who lost the 1962 California gubernatorial election and was elected president six years later, Santorum has not sought to reinvent his political views or persona.

Although Santorum disavowed his vote in 2003 to add a prescription drug-benefit to Medicare, the big-government conservative has yet to find a niche among GOP primary voters, whose ranks are overrepresented by Tea Party supporters and whose primary concerns are economic. “If he’s not talking about jobs and the economy, he’s not going to penetrate effectively,” Republican consultant Ron Bonjean said in an interview. “Focus on jobs and the economy. Talk about those topics and nothing else.”

The conservative strategists did not trace all of Santorum’s low standing in the polls to his ties with Bush. Brinson said Santorum’s staunch social conservatism doesn’t distinguish from Perry and Bachmann. “There’s not room for Santorum,” he said. “Perry had that religious event at Reliant Stadium in Houston (last month) with 40,000 to 50,000 people there.”

But in the eyes of those Republican consultants, Santorum has yet to find a way to escape from Bush’s long shadow.


Mark Stricherz
is a blogger at
CatholicVote.org, is the author of Why the Democrats are Blue: Secular Liberalism and the Decline of the People’s Party
(Encounter Books).

 
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