The PJ Tatler

Say, Why Isn't Rick Santorum the GOP 2016 Front-Runner?

In the lead-in to a great interview with Rick Santorum, Byron York notes the GOP’s tendency to nominate the guy who finished second last time around.

In 2012, [Santorum] won 11 primaries and caucuses, making him the solid second-place finisher in a party that has a long history of nominating the candidate who finished second the last time around. (See Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole, John McCain, and Mitt Romney.)

Does anything about the candidates on that list jump out at you?

How about the fact that, other than Reagan, once they won the nomination, they all lost the presidency. It was as if winning the GOP nomination was what really mattered.

The one recent time the GOP decisively broke this trend was in 2000. They nominated Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who had not run for president before. All he did was win two terms. Narrowly, but he won. He also helped increase the GOP’s hold on Congress in the 2002 mid-terms, only to fritter it away by steadfastly refusing to defend himself against scurrilous charges from the likes of Barack Obama. That refusal to defend himself ultimately helped elect Barack Obama.

Additionally, Reagan may not belong on the list, as he lost the GOP nomination to a sitting president, Gerald Ford, in 1976. That’s not quite the same thing as losing an open primary, even though Ford was truly selected and not elected. He was still the president and enjoyed the benefit of incumbency in the primary. Reagan lost that battle but won the war, as he became Ronaldus Magnus and knocked Jimmy Carter out of the White House in 1980.

Santorum’s second-place 2012 finish doesn’t entitle him to anything. I’m sure he would even agree with that. To a great extent, we can credit his second-place finish to sticking around long enough to become the home for the anti-Romney protest vote. Once the other non-Romneys had dropped out, he was all that was left.

The problems with nominating Santorum in 2016 are easy to identify in two questions:

1. What has he done?

2. What is his path to the White House?

Rick Santorum was a fine senator. But what is he known for? His brand in 2012 was a strong emphasis on social issues. Fine, I’m a social conservative myself. What else ya got? Business resume? Military experience? Executive chops? York notes Santorum’s fundamental 2012 message problem.

A significant number of people, including moderate Republicans, think of Santorum as a sort of religious politician, obsessed with social issues and motivated largely by his pro-life convictions and Catholic faith. Santorum certainly fed that perception at a few crucial points in the 2012 race with comments on contraception and the role of religion in politics. But anyone who watched his campaign for more than a few minutes saw a candidate with a wide-ranging agenda, one who spoke at far greater length about the economy and national security than about social issues.

Most Republicans, let alone most Americans, didn’t watch his campaign or any other for more than a few minutes. Maybe they watched Newt Gingrich’s, but mainly to see what he would do next. Santorum did speak often and well on foreign policy, as York points out, but — and as a foreign policy guy I hate writing this — foreign policy doesn’t decide presidential elections anymore. Experience in foreign policy doesn’t decide presidential elections. If foreign policy decided presidential elections, Barack Obama would have been laughed out of his first debate and John Bolton would be president. Unless foreign policy touches Americans’ everyday lives somehow, it’s too esoteric — too foreign, really — to decide anything.

The economy can decide elections. But quick, what was Rick Santorum’s answer to the economy? Mitt Romney actually came across as more competent to handle the economy, because he had an extremely successful business career.

The Democrats and the media managed to turn that into a negative. That’s what they do.

If a Republican lacks experience, they’re painted as too risky. If they actually have experience, then they’re creatures of the corrupt system or they’re evil corporate raiders. Also, stupid, and bullies.

Real ideas grounded in the real world don’t even really decide presidential elections. Obama didn’t offer any real-world experience or ideas in 2008 and won. He ran away from his own record in 2012 and won largely by generating lots of nonsensical but effective social-issues attacks. Charisma and inspiration plus organization, tactics, and fundraising decide presidential elections. Message, money, manpower, maneuvers. Stay on offense, make the other guy play defense. Which leads me to the second question.

Santorum would still be a senator if he could win his home state, Pennsylvania. But the fact is, he got absolutely trounced in his last statewide run by an empty suit with a famous name. Where is the hard evidence that he would do any better in Pennsylvania now? Well, one could argue that he couldn’t do any worse, but that’s not a path to victory. How does Rick Santorum unite the various wings of the GOP into a victorious whole? Where is the evidence that he can inspire the kind of effort it will take to win?

I’m not saying that he absolutely cannot win. Anything is possible. He’s a good man, has a great family, and his heart is pure American. He’s onto something when he talks about celebrating not just job creators, who are few in number and resented by many, but also the millions of job holders who are the pillars of their families, churches, communities, and workplaces.

But he’s a bad bet as the GOP nominee, no matter how he finished in 2012. Chances are, he’ll be up against someone the media loves — Hillary Clinton, Cory Booker, someone with a historic angle or something the media will help them sell as an inspirational success. Billy Blythe from Hot Springs became Bill Clinton, the Man From Hope, and the media played along. Barack Obama the hard left agitator rode home on Hope and Change, and the media still plays along long after he has been unmasked as a bitter, rigid, dishonest ideologue.

Santorum can’t do that. He’ll be fighting against that. He’ll need to have something from which he can build a real narrative that will resonate across and outside the GOP. But he has no great success story, he has no track record of doing anything that can become his great narrative, and he has shown no ability to overcome his Senate flameout.

But hey, he finished second in a GOP primary. Just like Dole, McCain, and Romney. So, there’s that!