Is God a Democrat?
Not to be mean, but early in this election season, Santorum was one of the funniest characters in the weekly Republican debate spoofs on “Saturday Night Live.” He was the pontificating choirboy, earnest and entirely unpresidential. As hard as it was to see Rick Perry or Newt Gingrich as president, it was even harder to imagine Santorum surging — or his impersonator having a long shelf life on the show.
So what happened? Did Republicans everywhere suddenly wake up and discover that Santorum had the magic they’d been looking for? Did they suddenly realize that in the midst of difficult economic times, what Americans were looking for was a guy who thinks birth control is bad for women, and that America’s economic problems could be solved by more religion in public life?
If you ask me, the Santorum surge has almost nothing to do with Santorum and everything to do with Mitt Romney. Or rather, with “not Romney.” As in, who can conservatives vote for who is “not Romney”? At first, it looked like it might be Rick Perry, so Perry flew high until he crashed trying to remember that third Cabinet department. Then Gingrich got hot because he could remember Cabinet departments that existed 30 years ago, but he also had so much baggage that even his masterful attempts at damage control and deflection couldn’t sustain his momentum.
That was the moment when the party was supposed to come together behind Romney. He won Florida. Even Donald Trump was impressed.
But a funny thing happened on the way to this summer’s convention in Tampa. The smart money went to Romney, but the Republican ground troops and grassroots didn’t follow. They went looking for someone else, and at least so far, their answer has been Santorum.
As far as I can tell, a lot of those supporting Santorum don’t actually know that much about him. They can’t detail his accomplishments or tell you where he stands on defense issues or what his plan is for the economy. They don’t know exactly what to say about his support for earmarks, because who knew he supported them? This is what they do know: He is not a conservative-come-lately. He is, in short, not Romney.
Can a guy who thinks birth control is bad and intelligent design should be taught in school and who is not known for anything he’s ever said or done about the economy really get elected president?
Would Republicans actually take the risk of nominating him?
Sure, it could happen. Christmas could come in November. Most of the smart Republicans I know shudder at the thought. The liberal blogs have just started digging for video on Santorum, and it isn’t pretty. (Many married people, after all, also use birth control. Heck, so do a majority of Catholics, even if President Obama was naive, at best, to think he would be praised for requiring religious-affiliated institutions to provide it.) But stranger things have happened, which is why watching politics — if not always playing it — is such fun.
Obama is inching up to 50 percent, the magic number for an incumbent. Romney and Santorum are running neck and neck. It’s one thing to have a primary season go all the way with a candidate who everyone knows can’t win, a Jesse Jackson. It’s one thing to have a primary season go all the way with two attractive and electable candidates who are supported, mostly with great congeniality, by the same wing of the party, say Hillary and Obama. But it’s quite another when the contest is real and is being propelled not by the strengths of two attractive candidates but by the overwhelming reluctance of the base of the party to accept the guy who’s supposed to win.
It’s a dangerous situation for Republicans because Romney could be weakened in the process and, even more, because the “not Romney” could actually win. The word is that Democrats are beginning their opposition research on Santorum. Must be fun.
Susan Estrich served as campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis.