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Explaining the Santorum Surprise

Friday, February 17, 2012

It was a foolish hope all along to imagine that the American people would be so exclusively concerned about their narrow economic self-interest that they would ignore cultural values.

In the upcoming presidential primaries, those who cast their votes for Rick Santorum will not just be picking a candidate for the nomination of the Republican Party, they will be picking an altogether different kind of presidential election from the one that was supposed to occur. Instead of being a race between two Ivy League technocrats, Romney and Obama, both claiming to have the cure for our economic ills, the election of 2012 could well turn into a messy, highly charged, and emotionally divisive choice between an Ivy League technocrat and a true-blue cultural conservative.

Not long ago it seemed obvious that the presidential campaign of 2012 would be all about the economy. “Jobs, jobs, jobs” was to be its theme and the candidate who convinced Americans that he was the best man for the job of creating jobs would clearly be in a position to trounce his opponents. Instead of squabbling over irrelevant cultural issues—such as gay marriage, abortion, or the role of religion in the public forum—the American people would focus their entire attention on the main point, namely, how to get the economy going again. A campaign geared solely to determining the best-equipped man to restore our nation’s prosperity would come down to a mere hiring decision, much like deciding which plumber to call in order to fix our stopped-up sink. It is what technocrats would like to see in an election: a rational, calculated, and dispassionate choice between two different teams of technocrats led by two different executive officers, both of them moderate, flexible, pragmatic, and bland. In a face-off between Romney and Obama the political rhetoric would essentially boil down to competing claims to the effect that “I could do the job better than my opponent.” In this scenario, the American voters would be in the position of the businessman charged with weighing the relative merits of two competing subcontractors and their bids. The election would be decided by Americans making the appropriate calculation of their individual economic self-interest—an election, in short, that would warm the heart (if he has one) of any economist.

The election of 2012 could well turn into a messy, highly charged, and emotionally divisive choice between an Ivy League technocrat and a true-blue cultural conservative.

This was the assumption behind the Romney campaign, with its emphasis on Romney as a successful businessman who knows how to get Americans back to work. Likewise, the Obama campaign has put economics issues front and center, not only by promising more job creation, but also by adopting Warren Buffett’s proposal to put a stiff surtax on the wealthiest Americans. Obama’s new budget has been widely perceived as a mere campaign ploy aiming to tap into the populist resentment against the greedy rich who fail to pay their fair share of taxes. But whatever their difference of nuance, both Romney and Obama based their campaign strategy on the shared belief that the surest way to the White House in 2012 lay in appealing to the economic self-interest of the American voter.

Two recent events have called into question the strategic assumptions of both Romney and Obama. First came Santorum’s triple victory over Romney in the Colorado and Minnesota caucuses and the Missouri primary. If 2012 was all about the economy, then a cash-strapped social conservative like Santorum had no business defeating Romney in three states, especially given the fact that Santorum represents the most conservative cultural values in the American political scene.

Next came the uproar over the Obama administration’s decision to compel religious institutions to provide birth control as part of the insurance coverage they offered to their employees. The decision was a terrible blunder, as the administration soon recognized. Yet even as Obama tried to control the damage, he seemed strangely clueless as to the source of the controversy, almost as if he and his inner circle could not quite get their heads around the idea that people could really be up in arms over a purely cultural issue that had nothing to do with economics, in this case the question of whether the government should compel religious institutions, such as Catholic hospitals, schools, and universities, to swallow their long-standing opposition to artificial birth control.

Santorum could even turn his greatest campaign liability—his lack of wealthy supporters—into a campaign asset, precisely by offering himself as the candidate of ordinary working Americans and not the plutocrats.

It remains to be seen whether the Obama administration has gotten the message that, even during a time of economic trouble, culture still counts, but there is no question that Romney did. During his appearance at the CPAC convention, for example, Romney pointedly tried to dispel lingering doubts about his commitment to cultural conservatism by claiming, among other things, that he was responsible for keeping Massachusetts “from becoming the Las Vegas of gay marriage.” Obviously, Romney had come to recognize that he could not win the Republican nomination simply by advertising himself as a fiscal Mr. Fix-it. Culture mattered, and Romney had to align himself (or at least pretend to) on the conservative side of the culture war. Furthermore, the contentious cultural issue of gay marriage is not just a problem for Romney. President Obama might well face the matter of gay marriage in the upcoming election, but from the other side of the aisle. Why, after all, hasn’t he come out in support of gay marriage, considering that an enormous section of his base is already deeply committed to it?

In short, despite their best efforts to make this election all about the economy, both Romney and Obama have unexpectedly found themselves in the midst of the ongoing American culture war. They would both like to change the subject and get back to “It’s all about the economy,” but Rick Santorum isn’t about to let them. And this is bad news both for Romney and Obama.

For example, the president was fully prepared to go head-to-head with Romney on the economy, but Obama’s recent display of insensitivity to the values of a large chunk of American voters indicates that he has a serious weak spot that could be deftly exploited by a dedicated cultural warrior like Santorum, a man of working class background who can feel the pulse of the American heartland because it is genuinely his own. In contrast, Obama seems to have no cultural pulse at all, as if he simply can’t understand how issues such as gay marriage (pro or con!) could really matter to people.

Whatever their difference of nuance, both Romney and Obama based their campaign strategy on the shared belief that the surest way to the White House in 2012 lay in appealing to the economic self-interest of the American voter.

In addition, Obama was preparing for a campaign in which he could score populist points by focusing his attacks on the same personal liabilities that Romney’s Republican opponents have repeatedly pounced on—his immense wealth, his offshore bank accounts, and his career at Bain Capital, not to mention his remarkable penchant for revealing just how out of touch he is with the day-to-day economic struggles of ordinary Americans, to whom $374,327 in lecture fees is nothing to sneeze at.

Unfortunately for the president, Santorum has already proven he knows how to play this game quite well himself. Even worse for the Obama campaign, the same average guy manner and blue collar background that makes Santorum’s attacks on Romney so convincing could be turned against Obama with equal force. Santorum could attack Obama for receiving huge campaign contributions from Wall Street and the very billionaires the president makes such a show of denouncing when it is convenient to his campaign. Santorum could even turn his greatest campaign liability—his lack of wealthy supporters—into a campaign asset, precisely by offering himself as the candidate of ordinary working Americans and not the plutocrats. Unlike Romney, Santorum has shared in their same economic ups and downs. Unlike Obama, Santorum also shares and defiantly champions their core cultural values.

Of all the candidates running for the presidency, Santorum is the only one who can manage to ride both the wave of populist economic discontent and that of populist cultural angst, and to do it all without the need for careful scripting and a playbook, simply because that is what comes naturally to him. This may go a long way toward explaining not only Santorum’s surprising primary victories, but the polls in Michigan and Ohio that show him ahead of Romney in both states.

Despite their best efforts to make this election all about the economy, both Romney and Obama have unexpectedly found themselves in the midst of the ongoing American culture war.

A contest between Santorum and Obama would not be a technocratic argument over who is the best man to help our national economic recovery. Rather, it would be a conflict between radically different visions of America’s future as a culture. The issue would not be “Who is the best technocrat to improve the economy,” but “What kind of culture do we want to pass on to our children?” It will be an election focused not just on the troubled state of the American economy, but on the equally troubled state of our culture. This is not the election that the establishment of either party hoped to see, since it will inevitably stir up that unpredictable political creature known as populism, with its tendency to upset the status quo and to inflame tensions in America’s perennial culture war.

Yet perhaps it was a foolish hope all along to imagine that the American people would be so exclusively concerned about their narrow economic self-interest that they would ignore those higher cultural values that money can neither buy when you lack them, nor replace when you lose them. And for that we should all be grateful, no matter which side of the great American cultural divide we stand on.

Lee Harris is the author of The Next American Civil War, Civilization and Its Enemies, and The Suicide of Reason.

FURTHER READING: Harris also writes “Tim Tebow and the Atheist’s Dilemma.” Christina Hoff Sommers asks “Is a Woman’s Place at Work?” Karlyn Bowman and Andrew Rugg reveal “Obama’s Weakness in Historical Context.” Michael Barone explains “How to Understand Obama’s Chances in 2012.” Jonah Goldberg contributes “The GOP Race Gets Messy.” Henry Olson authors “Two Decades Too Late.”

Image by Rob Green / Bergman Group

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