So I’ve been pretty mean about Rick Santorum.
I’ve made fun of his interview tantrums and his weird obsession with the possibility that, somewhere, right now, in Vermont, two guys called Bruce and Bernard could be picking out matching his’n’his dressing gowns at Bed, Bath and Beyond. I mocked his condomnation (trademark pending) of birth control and expressed disdain for his Bill Donahue Catholicism. The phrase “sweater-vested dinosaur-denier” might have come up once or twice.
But now is a good time to remember what Santorum brought to the primary process. And it wasn’t all bad. True, his social conservatism could be fire-and-brimstone-y – uncharacteristically so for an American Catholic – and his constant whining about attack ads and media bias was wearying. But he brought to the race a human quality that none of the other candidates, with the exception of Rep. Michele Bachmann, could mimic let alone embody. He’s a husband and a father to seven children, including the brave little fighter Bella who has defied every doctor and specialist to go on living despite suffering from Trisomy 18. When he spoke about how the Obama economy was putting the squeeze on middle class families, his words carried the authenticity of a family man.
Every politician promises to run “a campaign of ideas” but it’s fair to say Santorum held fast to that pledge, to his detriment. He talked about issues written off in this ‘economy election’. Broken families, absent fathers, abortion, and a suburban and rural America that feels its values are under heavy artillery from the courts, the White House, and the culture. These are all worthy issues, they all cost him more votes than they won him, and yet he stuck with them. I’ll leave readers to decide whether he was principled or stubborn.
Whichever it was, Santorum’s campaign was a platform for a variety of forgotten causes and issues that dominated as recently as 2004 but have been edged aside in favour of jobs, the economy, and taxes. These issues won’t get much play from here on in, so he deserves credit for forcing them onto the national agenda.
He was similarly strong-willed on foreign and security policy. He articulated a staunch case for the Republican Party to be the pro-Israel party, at a time when the Democrats are lurching towards the fashionable anti-Zionism of the European left, and was never shy about his belief that Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria were sovereign Israeli territory. Whenever he could, he would steer a foreign policy debate to the question of Iran and its burgeoning nuclear programme. Like no other candidate, he refused to concede that the American people were suffering war on terror fatigue and pressed for America’s defences to be sturdier and her role in the world more, not less assertive.
Another point about Santorum: For all his claims to the mantle, he was not a conservative and didn’t run a conservative campaign. He was a long-time Washington insider with a record of voting to increase spending as often as he voted to cut it. He had an FDR Democrat’s fetish for the manufacturing industry and his attachment to the small-town hard-hat led him into protectionist and corporatist territory hitherto occupied by the old socialists at The Nation and the latter-day Lindbergh Pat Buchanan. If you strip away his foreign policy, Santorum is a Catholic statist-populist in the vein of Buchanan but without the latter’s attachment to blood and soil.
Santorum’s concession to the inevitability of Mitt Romney will not sit well with the Anyone But Romneys; those right-wingers who detest (not an overstatement) Mitt for his centrism, his flip-flopping, his wealth, his Mormonism, his hair, or all of these things and more. They have no one to turn to now. With Santorum gone, Mitt’s only rivals are Newt Gingrich, whose campaign increasingly seems like an excuse not to find a real job, and Ron Paul, who’s plain nuts. So Romney’s the guy and the shrill chorus of diehards pledging to stay at home rather than vote for, horror of horrors, a moderate Republican, had better get used to it.
Defeating Barack Obama is an epic challenge, and likely an insurmountable one, but if it is to be done the GOP has to learn to love Romney the way Democrats loved their moderate, Bill Clinton. As lefties outraged at Clinton’s rightwards tilts would often remind themselves, in the words of an old Texas saying, “You gotta dance with the one that brung ya.”