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Rick Santorum Speaks to His Base | The Nation

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Ben Adler

Ben Adler

 The 2012 election, Republican politics and conservative media.

Rick Santorum Speaks to His Base

It’s interesting that Rick Santorum has been such a failure as a Republican presidential candidate to date. Unlike all the candidates who outrank him in the polls and fundraising race, Santorum, a former member of the Senate leadership, has the experience and ironclad conservative credentials to make him both plausible to the party elite and credible with the rabid base.

His having lost his re-election bid in the major swing state of Pennsylvania by eighteen points might cause one to question his electability. On other hand, his winning percentage is better than Mitt Romney’s. Anyway, any party that just a few weeks ago was putting Michele Bachmann in the lead is obviously unconcerned with electability.

Santorum’s campaign may be lackluster, but the television networks’ inexhaustible enthusiasm for debates has been his salvation. While Bachmann demonstrates her inability to answer a question with anything other than (often irrelevant) talking points, and Perry and Romney trade barbs over each other’s past heresies, Santorum comes across as the sharpest person in the room. His aggressive defense of the discredited foreign policy views of the Dick Cheney wing of the GOP has won him a few fans like the Washington Post’s neoconservative blogger Jennifer Rubin.

But neoconservatism has always had more truly devoted adherents in Washington think tanks than among actual Republican primary voters. The biggest disadvantage Santorum faces is that his signature issues—bigotry towards gays and lesbians and opposition to abortion and its sinful cousins such as stem cell research—are on the wane. All anyone wants to talk about is the economy. And while Santorum is every bit as capable of reciting the same bromides about low taxes and spending as his opponents, he doesn’t have any special story to tell about his economic experience, like Rick Perry’s “Texas miracle” or Romney’s years in the private sector.

To break through Santorum would need a resurgence of energy around socially conservative concerns. So the Value Voters Summit—a conference hosted by the Family Research Council—was a good chance for Santorum speak to what he hopes will be his base. Every major Republican candidate will address the assembled socially conservative activists on Friday or Saturday. But this opportunity is more important for Santorum that it is for, say, Ron Paul.

Santorum seems to realize this. Arriving at the Omni Shoreham this morning two hours before Santorum’s address, the lobby was peopled with a handful of young Santorum campaign staffers and volunteers handing out literature. He was the only candidate so represented.

Unlike the morning’s speakers, who focused heavily on foreign policy, Santorum gave the crowd religious red meat. “I have never put social issues and values issues on the back burner,” Santorum declared, truthfully and to great applause. “I’ve been leading the charge.” He emphasized the reference to “their Creator” in the Declaration of Independence. “The founders understood that true happiness can only be found by dong God's will,” Santorum asserted.

Santorum started by bragging that he has fathered seven children, as if his virility were an essential qualification for the presidency. “Karen and I home school our children,” he later noted, to whoops and applause. In mid-speech he brought out his wife and several of his children.

“The president won’t defend [the Defense of Marriage Act], an abomination,” Santorum complains. He went on to falsely assert, as other speakers have today, that President Obama “instructed” military chaplains to perform same sex wedding ceremonies. (Obama has merely given them the option of doing so.) “He has instructed people in the military to break the law,” Santorum claimed. That’s a serious lie to tell about the president.

Santorum implicitly went after his opponents’ weaknesses. “We’ve seen with this president that experience matters,” he said. Later he asked, in what sounded like a jab at Romney, “Don’t you want a president who is comfortable in their shoes?”

But Santorum also unwisely reminded the audience that his best political days are behind him. He kept suggesting that we “go back to the late 1990s,” when he helped to pass the partial birth abortion ban. 

He only discussed the topic that everyone says will decide the election—the economy—in passing. “Herman Cain has his nine-nine-nine plan,” said Santorum, referring to Cain’s regressive tax proposal. “I have a better plan, zero-zero-zero.” The audience laughed. But did they wonder how we would fund the government’s functions?

Santorum tried to link his obsessive focus on opposition to gay marriage with economic struggles by noting that single-parent households are much more likely to live in poverty than two-parent households. He gets the causality backwards, of course: poor people are more likely to have children out of wedlock in the first place. And he argues that combating the epidemic of single parenthood requires “defending traditional marriage,” which would mean fewer, not more married couples.

“We must fight in every state to make sure marriage remains between one man and one woman, and as president I will do that,” Satorum promised, to a standing ovation. “You’ve seen it in the debates, I get all the cultural questions.… you know what? Bring it on.”

Clearly the crowd was sympathetic to Santorum’s views. But one didn’t get the sense that they left the room for lunch having been converted into Santorum voters. Earlier, in the exhibition space exhibitors from the usual anti-gay and anti-Muslim groups, when asked who embraces their issues, mentioned Hermain Cain and Michele Bachmann before Santorum. Maybe at least he’s changed that, but it’s unlikely to be enough. 

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