Commentary Magazine


Topic: working class

GOP Should Listen to Santorum

Rick Santorum has had a hard time getting in the discussion about 2016. The deep bench of Republican contenders for the next presidential election has moved the unofficial runner up in the 2012 GOP contest to the party’s back burner. Most of the media seems to think that with Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and Paul Ryan in the conversation, why bother listening to the guy who won 11 primaries and caucuses while giving Mitt Romney a run for his money a year ago? Santorum, who managed to overcome the same media indifference and skepticism throughout the winter and spring of 2012, is probably not going to do as well next time around. But he still has an important message for a party that has spent the last several months debating why Barack Obama beat them. Speaking yesterday at the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in Washington, Santorum returned to a favorite theme during the last campaign: don’t ignore the working class.

Most Republicans have already accepted the truth of the two conclusions that both conservative activists and mainstream establishment types agree are the primary lessons of 2012: a. don’t use abortion and rape in the same sentence (call it the “Todd Akin rule”); and b. parties that oppose the excesses of the liberal welfare state shouldn’t nominate millionaire Wall Street executives (the “Mitt Romney rule”). While some on the right are still having trouble with the Akin rule, fortunately for the GOP, all of their likely 2016 contenders are officeholders, not hedge fund operators. But Santorum’s message goes farther than mere biography and points out why the convention theme that delighted most Republicans fell flat with the rest of the country.

Amid all the back and forth about what went wrong in 2012, no other Republican has criticized the Tampa Convention’s emphasis on a critique of President Obama’s infamous “You didn’t build that” comment. But Santorum understands that as much as the GOP’s paean to capitalism and individual initiative was correct and highly satisfying for conservatives, it also reinforced the Democratic attempt to smear Republicans as tools of the rich and inimitable to the interests of the middle class and workers.

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Rick Santorum has had a hard time getting in the discussion about 2016. The deep bench of Republican contenders for the next presidential election has moved the unofficial runner up in the 2012 GOP contest to the party’s back burner. Most of the media seems to think that with Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and Paul Ryan in the conversation, why bother listening to the guy who won 11 primaries and caucuses while giving Mitt Romney a run for his money a year ago? Santorum, who managed to overcome the same media indifference and skepticism throughout the winter and spring of 2012, is probably not going to do as well next time around. But he still has an important message for a party that has spent the last several months debating why Barack Obama beat them. Speaking yesterday at the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in Washington, Santorum returned to a favorite theme during the last campaign: don’t ignore the working class.

Most Republicans have already accepted the truth of the two conclusions that both conservative activists and mainstream establishment types agree are the primary lessons of 2012: a. don’t use abortion and rape in the same sentence (call it the “Todd Akin rule”); and b. parties that oppose the excesses of the liberal welfare state shouldn’t nominate millionaire Wall Street executives (the “Mitt Romney rule”). While some on the right are still having trouble with the Akin rule, fortunately for the GOP, all of their likely 2016 contenders are officeholders, not hedge fund operators. But Santorum’s message goes farther than mere biography and points out why the convention theme that delighted most Republicans fell flat with the rest of the country.

Amid all the back and forth about what went wrong in 2012, no other Republican has criticized the Tampa Convention’s emphasis on a critique of President Obama’s infamous “You didn’t build that” comment. But Santorum understands that as much as the GOP’s paean to capitalism and individual initiative was correct and highly satisfying for conservatives, it also reinforced the Democratic attempt to smear Republicans as tools of the rich and inimitable to the interests of the middle class and workers.

As Politico notes:

“One after another, they talked about the business they had built. But not a single—not a single —factory worker went out there,” Santorum told a few hundred conservative activists at an “after-hours session” of the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in Washington. “Not a single janitor, waitress or person who worked in that company! We didn’t care about them. You know what? They built that company too! And we should have had them on that stage.”

When all you do is talk to people who are owners, talk to folks who are ‘Type As’ who want to succeed economically, we’re talking to a very small group of people,” he said. “No wonder they don’t think we care about them. No wonder they don’t think we understand them. Folks, if we’re going to win, you just need to think about who you talk to in your life.”

Trying to carve out a role as a leading populist in the 2016 field, Santorum insisted that Republicans must “talk to the folks who are worried about the next paycheck,” not the CEOs.

While Politico and most other observers see this as mainly an attempt to pile on Romney, Santorum actually has a broader point. In their haste to push back against the big government liberalism of Obama and his party, Republicans have sometimes seemed to forget that conservatives only succeed when they can appeal to rank-and-file Americans who are as suspicious of Wall Street as they are of the Internal Revenue Service and the rest of the governmental leviathan. A party that rightly venerates Ronald Reagan often forgets that even though his time as a spokesman for General Electric was pivotal in his political development, he ran against the elites, not as their spear-carrier.

The Tea Party movement protests helped win the 2010 midterms for Republicans because they were an expression of grass roots discontent about spending and taxing. But running for president requires more than just opposition to liberal plans. Candidates not only need to say what they are for but how their plans will affect the lives of working people. Much of the middle and working class embrace values of hard work and patriotism that might incline them to vote for Republicans so long as they feel GOP candidates care about their wellbeing.

There were a lot of reasons why Republicans failed in 2012. Perhaps even a perfect GOP candidate and campaign would not have been enough to persuade Americans to make the first African-American a one-term president. But the Republican failure to prevent the Democrats from seizing the mantle of the middle and working classes ensured their defeat.

The centrality of social conservatism in Santorum’s political personality will probably always make it impossible for him to win the Republican nomination, let alone actually be elected president. With a whole new class of attractive and dynamic GOP candidates set to run in 2016, it’s hard to imagine how he will be able to duplicate his unlikely surge in the last go round. But instead of ignoring him, Republicans should be listening to Santorum’s critique of their party. If they don’t, all of the non-millionaires lining up to be the nominee won’t get any closer to the Oval Office than Romney did.

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