Who Slew the Santorum Campaign?

Probably in anticipation of Rick Santorum’s increasingly likely defeat in Wisconsin next Tuesday, which will materially increase GOP establishment (and even movement-conservative establishment) calls for him to get out of the race, Sam Stein and Jason Cherkis of HuffPost published a very long piece comparing the candidate’s problems this year with those he exhibited in his disastrous 2006 re-election campaign.

It’s all pretty fascinating, full of 2006 campaign anecdotes that mostly establish what an absolute bummer it was to be on Team Santorum that year. Voters were angry at Rick, Rick was angry at the world, and it was pretty obvious he was going down to abject defeat long before the votes were counted.

In terms of Santorum’s mistakes, this account mostly focuses on his inability to put a lid on his radical religious-based social views, as exhibited by his decision to publish a book on the brink of his re-election campaign that more or less made him sound like Pat Buchanan with an advanced degree from some very conservative European Catholic seminary. When added to his Google problem and his very conspicuous role in the embarrassment of the U.S. Senate during the Terri Schiavo saga, it was just all too much for Pennsylvania voters who were not in a pro-Republican mood to begin with.

Stein and Cherkis suggest that Santorum has had similar problems inhibiting his cultural extremism in this campaign.

I dunno about that. We would not still be talking about Santorum had he not finally nailed down the support of Iowa’s hard-core cultural conservatives (and of their leader, Bob Vander Plaats) just prior to the January Caucuses. And it wasn’t easy, what with everyone else in the field (with the occasional exception of Mitt Romney and Herman Cain) eager to pander to the Christian Right and particularly to some of the country’s most intense opponents of legalized abortion and same-sex marriage. It’s true that Santorum only had to highlight, not exaggerate, his views, but had he not, for example, signed onto Vander Plaats’ extremist Marriage Vow, he’d have probably never made it out of the single digits in Iowa.

Later on, it’s unlikely Santorum could have become the very favorite candidate of conservative evangelical voters nationwide if he had spent all his time talking about the economy or the federal budget. Sure, he could have probably done without the Satan-talk and the JFK-bashing, but those utterances, too, were helpful in identifying Rick with the “Christian Worldview” that embraces “spiritual warfare” and regards the very idea of church-state separation as a secularist abomination.

But when you look at the ammunition used by Mitt Romney and his Super-PAC to defeat Santorum in primary after primary, it becomes reasonably clear that it’s not his cultural views, but his identification with the Washington GOP Establishment (the very Establishment, ironically, that lined up with Romney so avidly) that’s been the killer. His votes for George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind and the Medicare Rx Drug benefit initiatives; his past defense of earmarking; and his endorsement of Arlen Specter in a GOP primary, were all heavily used against him (only the Specter endorsement seemed to be a big deal in 2006, when it affected the enthusiasm of his conservative activist “base”). And beyond that, a couple of Washington Insider issues that were prominent in his 2006 defeat re-emerged, notably his use of Pennsylvania taxpayer dollars to educate his kids in Virginia, and his leadership in the notorious lobbyist shakedown operation the K Street Project.

Maybe Santorum went into the current race thinking Mitt Romney of all people couldn’t possibly be cynical enough to run to his right on non-cultural issues, but if so, he guessed fatally wrong (as did Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich).

Santorum’s goose was probably cooked from the beginning, and only an exceptionally weak field kept him viable for so long. I have no idea what the future holds for him. Maybe if Romney is elected he’ll throw him a bone, though that may depend on how long he stays in the race. If nothing else, there will always be room for him as a guest speaker in those megachurches and Pizza Ranches of Iowa, where his improbable presidential campaign took off.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.