Commentary Magazine


Topic: social conservatives

Are We Still Underestimating Santorum?

Prior to the 2012 campaign, as Rick Santorum prepared to run for president few pundits (including this one) took his bid seriously. Nor did most Republican operatives think the former Pennsylvania senator’s campaign had a ghost of a chance to even survive until the votes started being counted in Iowa. Yet Santorum persisted and wound up winning a dozen caucuses and primaries on the way to being the unofficial runner-up for the nomination to eventual winner Mitt Romney. Though there are no silver medals handed out for finishing second in politics, it was still an amazing achievement for someone who had been left for dead politically after losing his 2006 re-election race by a landslide.

Given that strong showing, you might think Santorum would be treated as a viable candidate for 2016. Indeed, given the Republicans’ unofficial tradition of nominating for president the candidate who failed after a strong run in the previous competitive race (a list that includes Romney, John McCain, Bob Dole, George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan), you might think Santorum would be considered a first-tier contender for 2016, if not a frontrunner. But that isn’t the case. The consensus appears to be that with a much stronger field of prospective candidates than the party had in 2012—a group that includes Chris Christie, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, and Scott Walker—Santorum hasn’t much of a chance. But that might be a mistake. As pieces in the Daily Beast and Politico published today point out, Santorum is not only back on the hustings in Iowa (where he outworked the other candidates last year); he has a hold on the affections of a crucial portion of the GOP electorate that none of those big names can claim. So long as no other Republican can establish themselves as the favorite of social conservatives or as one who cares about the working class, Santorum will be a factor in the presidential race.

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Prior to the 2012 campaign, as Rick Santorum prepared to run for president few pundits (including this one) took his bid seriously. Nor did most Republican operatives think the former Pennsylvania senator’s campaign had a ghost of a chance to even survive until the votes started being counted in Iowa. Yet Santorum persisted and wound up winning a dozen caucuses and primaries on the way to being the unofficial runner-up for the nomination to eventual winner Mitt Romney. Though there are no silver medals handed out for finishing second in politics, it was still an amazing achievement for someone who had been left for dead politically after losing his 2006 re-election race by a landslide.

Given that strong showing, you might think Santorum would be treated as a viable candidate for 2016. Indeed, given the Republicans’ unofficial tradition of nominating for president the candidate who failed after a strong run in the previous competitive race (a list that includes Romney, John McCain, Bob Dole, George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan), you might think Santorum would be considered a first-tier contender for 2016, if not a frontrunner. But that isn’t the case. The consensus appears to be that with a much stronger field of prospective candidates than the party had in 2012—a group that includes Chris Christie, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, and Scott Walker—Santorum hasn’t much of a chance. But that might be a mistake. As pieces in the Daily Beast and Politico published today point out, Santorum is not only back on the hustings in Iowa (where he outworked the other candidates last year); he has a hold on the affections of a crucial portion of the GOP electorate that none of those big names can claim. So long as no other Republican can establish themselves as the favorite of social conservatives or as one who cares about the working class, Santorum will be a factor in the presidential race.

Right now, political observers are focused—as we were before 2012—on the question of which Republican can best appeal to the Tea Party movement. That will be a major factor in the GOP race, but we forget that social conservatives remain a key Republican constituency. Though a single-minded focus on abortion or opposition to gay marriage would be a liability to the GOP in a general election, religious conservatives can’t be ignored in Republican primaries. Though all of the possible 2016 contenders are pro-life, none, save for Santorum, can be said to be particularly or exclusively devoted to their interests as he was, or as Mike Huckabee was in 2008. They were the factor that propelled Santorum to the first tier last year and could do the same for any of the contenders in the next contest.

Just as important is Santorum’s critique of the 2012 GOP campaign for ignoring the interests of working-class voters. Running an extremely wealthy candidate like Romney with no seeming connection to the concerns of ordinary middle-class voters was enough of a problem. But Santorum is on to something when he says that even the Republican National Convention’s attempt to exploit President Obama’s “You didn’t build that” gaffe was only directed toward business owners, not the people who labor in those businesses.

What Santorum is aiming at here is a GOP strategy that seeks to re-engage with what an earlier generation called “Reagan Democrats” or even the Ross Perot voters of the 1990s. They make up what Sean Trende identified in Real Clear Politics as the party’s “missing white voters” who could theoretically make up for their failure to connect with the growing Hispanic population.

None of this will necessarily make up for Santorum’s relative lack of star power compared with any in the upcoming class of GOP candidates. Christie’s ability to appeal to independents could make him a juggernaut, as could Paul’s growing libertarian faction. Moreover, it is entirely possible that a candidate like Ryan or Rubio could steal the Pennsylvanian’s thunder with religious voters and make him irrelevant in 2016. But anyone inclined to write off Santorum this far in advance is likely making a mistake.

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Ryan’s Social Views No Burden to GOP

The assumption among liberals is that the more the public learns about Paul Ryan, the easier it will be to brand him (in the words of Obama campaign honcho David Axelrod) as a “certifiable right-wing ideologue.” The core of that strategy is the belief liberals can demonize Ryan’s budget and his effort to reform entitlements. But another aspect of it is the notion that the Republican vice presidential candidate’s social conservatism is also an easy target. As a New York Times article details, Ryan is pro-life, an opponent of gay marriage and opposes the federal mandate that all employers must be compelled to pay for contraception and abortion-inducing drugs even if it contradicts their religious scruples. The assumption is that the mere listing of these positions that so offend liberal orthodoxy will ensure the defeat of the Republicans.

But as Politico notes today, as much as Ryan helps energize the conservative base behind a Romney candidacy about which they were lukewarm, placing the articulate congressman from Wisconsin on the ticket also helps put the votes of Catholics who are independents or conservative Democrats into play. While those who look to the editorial page of the New York Times for guidance may be outraged about Ryan’s positions on social issues, the number of those voters — including those whose support might be up for grabs in November — who share his view of ObamaCare as well as on abortion, gay marriage and guns is far greater. Ryan’s impact on the working-class Catholic vote that helped make the difference for Barack Obama in some states four years ago is a factor that many analysts are underestimating.

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The assumption among liberals is that the more the public learns about Paul Ryan, the easier it will be to brand him (in the words of Obama campaign honcho David Axelrod) as a “certifiable right-wing ideologue.” The core of that strategy is the belief liberals can demonize Ryan’s budget and his effort to reform entitlements. But another aspect of it is the notion that the Republican vice presidential candidate’s social conservatism is also an easy target. As a New York Times article details, Ryan is pro-life, an opponent of gay marriage and opposes the federal mandate that all employers must be compelled to pay for contraception and abortion-inducing drugs even if it contradicts their religious scruples. The assumption is that the mere listing of these positions that so offend liberal orthodoxy will ensure the defeat of the Republicans.

But as Politico notes today, as much as Ryan helps energize the conservative base behind a Romney candidacy about which they were lukewarm, placing the articulate congressman from Wisconsin on the ticket also helps put the votes of Catholics who are independents or conservative Democrats into play. While those who look to the editorial page of the New York Times for guidance may be outraged about Ryan’s positions on social issues, the number of those voters — including those whose support might be up for grabs in November — who share his view of ObamaCare as well as on abortion, gay marriage and guns is far greater. Ryan’s impact on the working-class Catholic vote that helped make the difference for Barack Obama in some states four years ago is a factor that many analysts are underestimating.

While it is possible that Mediscare tactics will stampede some voters who would otherwise vote against the president’s re-election, the idea that independents will be scared away from a conservative because of his views on abortion is something of a liberal myth. Those who have no sympathy for Ryan’s pro-life views or disagree with his opposition to more restrictions on gun ownership were never going to vote for Romney anyway.

But, as much as this may surprise the editorial board of the New York Times, there are voters out there who will see the elevation of a faithful Catholic to the GOP ticket as motivation to vote for Romney. The proof of this is in the composition of the Democratic ticket. While Biden is a supporter of abortion, his role in mobilizing working-class Catholics behind Obama was widely acknowledged in 2008. Democrats may believe their push behind a “social justice” agenda will help them hold onto Catholic voters, but the ObamaCare mandate against religious freedom is the flaw in that theory.

As much as many Catholics may disagree with their church’s teaching on contraception, the spectacle of the government compelling religious institutions as well as individuals to choose between their consciences and obeying the federal mandate is one that hurts Obama. Far from Ryan’s social conservatism being a problem for the GOP, the ability of the veep nominee to make a strong case for both economic freedom and the principles of his upbringing is an undervalued asset in the election.

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Social Conservative Smacked Down on CNN

A rare kudos to CNN’s Kyra Phillips, who highlights another absurdity in the American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer’s recent attack on Mitt Romney’s national security spokesman. Any true conservative must be a fan of Ambassador John Bolton, right? And, as we know, Fischer has claimed no real conservative could possibly hire a gay spokesman, right? Well, as it turns out:

PHILLIPS: Did you think John Bolton did a good job when he was U.S. ambassador to the U.N.? [...]

FISCHER: He did a great job.

PHILLIPS: Okay. Grenell was his spokesperson….Bryan, I just thought that was interesting, you thought Bolton did a great job, and Grenell was his spokesperson.

FISCHER: Well, the point here is that personnel is policy. Everybody in D.C. says that. Personnel is policy. When Governor Romney picks somebody who is an activist homosexual and puts him in a prominent position, he’s sending a shout out, it seems to me, to the homosexual lobby.

Unfortunately Phillips’ logical fallacy didn’t cause Fischer to short-circuit like a robot, but you can watch him attempt to defend his untenable argument here.

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A rare kudos to CNN’s Kyra Phillips, who highlights another absurdity in the American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer’s recent attack on Mitt Romney’s national security spokesman. Any true conservative must be a fan of Ambassador John Bolton, right? And, as we know, Fischer has claimed no real conservative could possibly hire a gay spokesman, right? Well, as it turns out:

PHILLIPS: Did you think John Bolton did a good job when he was U.S. ambassador to the U.N.? [...]

FISCHER: He did a great job.

PHILLIPS: Okay. Grenell was his spokesperson….Bryan, I just thought that was interesting, you thought Bolton did a great job, and Grenell was his spokesperson.

FISCHER: Well, the point here is that personnel is policy. Everybody in D.C. says that. Personnel is policy. When Governor Romney picks somebody who is an activist homosexual and puts him in a prominent position, he’s sending a shout out, it seems to me, to the homosexual lobby.

Unfortunately Phillips’ logical fallacy didn’t cause Fischer to short-circuit like a robot, but you can watch him attempt to defend his untenable argument here.

Fischer isn’t the only social conservative who has criticized Romney for hiring Richard Grenell, and it’s worth wondering why this didn’t bother anyone when Grenell was working for Bolton. Is it simply because Romney’s in a more prominent position, and Grenell’s personal life was never really in the news before? If that’s the case, maybe these critics should realize that their concerns aren’t grounded in reality.

It seems more likely that the attacks on Grenell are based on a still-lingering anti-Romney undercurrent in the conservative movement. Fischer has made his disapproval of Romney’s religion clear in the past, which may explain his oddly vocal attack on Romney’s hiring decision.

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