Enter Santorum

Savvy political observers will downplay the long-term significance of Rick Santorum’s Tuesday night sweep of Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, where few delegates were at stake and the campaigning was light, but there’s no denying the short-term effect. Santorum has at least temporarily supplanted Newt Gingrich as the conservative alternative to putative front-runner Mitt Romney.

Despite a significant disadvantage to Romney in funding and organization, the former Pennsylvania senator might fare better in the challenger role than did his many successors, all of whom faded under the spotlight. He seems a likeable guy, unlike the scowling Gingrich, and in a regular blue collar background kind of way, unlike the blue-blooded Romney, and he’s not a foreign policy fruitcake, unlike Ron Paul. The more orthodox conservatives will point to his past support for earmark spending, No Child Left Behind, the prescription drug entitlement, and other Bush-era heresies, but his right-wing credentials are at least as righteous as Gingrich’s, more consistent than Romney’s, and don’t entail the foreign policy nuttiness of Paul.

Santorum’s conservatism on social issues is unquestioned, and although that has not been the main theme of his campaign it will certainly be the old-line media’s favorite storyline in the coming months. Santorum has the same position on gay marriage as Barack Obama, but he will be portrayed as a heartless gay-basher. Despite his clear and consistent declarations that he will not seek to ban contraceptives, his personal opposition to the practice will be offered as proof that he’s a modern day Anthony Comstock. Never mind that Santorum belongs to the same Catholic church as John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi and Kathleen Sebelius, it will be duly noted with undisguised disdain that unlike the others he actually believes in all that stuff.

For the most part American political discourse has been blissfully free of the social issues since the economic downturn that began in 2008, and Santorum probably prefers it stay that way, but the old cultural conflicts that have been kept on the back burner are starting to boil over into the news. The resent decision by the White House to force Catholic hospitals and schools and other religious institutions to provide insurance covering contraception and abortifacients is one example, a judge’s ruling to overturn California’s popular referendum against gay marriage is another, and Santorum’s past and present opposition to abortion will now be one more.

A renewed culture war will not only distract attention from the historically weak economic recovery, the looming debt crisis, and a rapidly deteriorating situation in the Middle East, among other more pressing problems, but the left will also expect to find itself on the winning side. They might be in correct in that calculation, but the White House has been widely criticized by members of both parties for the insurance ruling, that was a popular referendum that the judge overturned, and Obama’s abortion policies are arguably further from the center than Santorum’s. Obama has lately been mentioning his own religious convictions, partly in an attempt to sell his domestic policies with the old social gospel pitch, and several of his most ardent admirers have assured he doesn’t really mean any of it, but the fact that he feels the need to resort to religious language suggests there’s still a sizeable audience for it.

A continued emphasis on economics would serve Santorum well in the primary race, and especially in a general election if he gets that far, that fact he unabashedly holds religious beliefs should not be an insurmountable problem. If it is, this country has bigger problems than Barack Obama.

— Bud Norman

State by State, by Stereotype

Several explanations have already been offered for Mitt Romney’s solid victory in Tuesday’s Florida presidential primary, and most of them are plausible.

One theory, held by distant runner-up Newt Gingrich, holds that Romney’s sizeable fund-raising advantage allowed him to flood the airwaves with negative advertising in a state too large for stump campaigning. Another theory, not held by Gingrich, is that the former House Speaker’s angry response to the media barrage revealed his flaws more clearly than the ads ever could.

Our favorite theory, though, is the one offered by internet journalist Stacy McCain, who ties Tuesday’s result to the crucial little old lady vote in Florida. He writes that “Your grandma loves Mitt Romney,” a phenomenon he attributes to the contrast between “the tall, lean, millionaire entrepreneur with dark hair and chiseled features” and “the pudgy intellectual.”

This hypothesis is based on a stereotype of Florida as a vast geezerdom, as well as an equally stereotyped view of elderly women, which makes it quite convincing. Most of the stereotypes about the various states are valid, after all, and Florida’s reputation as “God’s waiting room” is no exception.

If either or both of the first two theories are true, and they are by no means mutually exclusive, Romney should be able to achieve a similar outcome in any of the upcoming primaries and caucuses. If the McCain theory is more correct, however, handicapping the race requires looking at the upcoming schedule, which now takes the race to Nevada, Maine, Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri, then examining the candidates through the proper stereotype.

Nevada is full of Mormons and gamblers, so Romney should do well. The Mormons will be inclined to vote for a co-religionist, and the gamblers will be impressed by Romney’s success as a venture capitalist.

The people of Maine regard Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins as proper Republicans, a delusion that prairie people attribute to nine months of winter and a constant diet of sea food, so Romney should do well there, too.

Colorado is populated with bike-riding hippies drawn there by a misunderstanding of John Denver’s pop hit “Rocky Mountain High,” so look for Ron Paul to score an upset victory.

Minnesotans revere Garrison Keillor, so they have no prejudice against pudgy intellectuals, but they’re also notoriously nice, which means they will have no natural affinity for Gingrich. Rick Santorum’s squeaky-cleanness might serve him well, but expect another Romney win.

As Kansans we are obliged by state law to have nothing good to say about Missouri, but we will say that it is the most likely state for Gingrich to score another victory.

— Bud Norman

It’s the Establishment, Man

The establishment isn’t what it used to be, and neither is the anti-establishment.

Readers of a certain age will recall an era when the establishment was widely understood to be the squares. The establishment was why you couldn’t smoke dope in class or say dirty words on television, and why you had to get married and work for a living. The anti-establishment was easily recognized by its long hair, tie-dyed apparel, and screeching guitar music.

Now the anti-establishment is former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and all the hard-working married people who support his presidential campaign, which raises the question of who is the establishment.

Gingrich supporters are quite right to think that they’re not the establishment, square though they may be. At some point since the baby boom a new establishment was established, and while it hasn’t yet achieved classroom dope smoking there are dirty words aplenty on the television, there is no longer any societal pressure to marry, working for a living is increasingly optional, and all manner of mores have changed in ways that are not to the liking of a Gingrich supporter. The folks found at “Occupy” protests share the same tonsorial, sartorial and musical tastes of an earlier anti-establishment generation, but they’re protesting on behalf of the same establishment that a Gingrich supporter rails against.

The Gingrich supporters believe they’re also standing in opposition to a Republican establishment, however, and in that case it’s less clear who they’re talking about. If they mean the Republicans who have held office or worked in other capacities in Washington, D.C., their own candidate is a longtime congressman, former Speaker of the House, and has had many dealings with the federal government. If they mean Republicans who sometimes stray from conservative orthodoxy, their own candidate has committed heresies on such important issues as health care reform, global warming and Medicare reform. If they mean anyone who offers criticisms of their candidate, the establishment would include such stalwart conservatives and anti-establishmentarians as Andrew Brietbart, Ann Coulter and Matt Drudge.

Should someone other than Gingrich wind up the nomination, we expect his acolytes will quickly remember which establishment they’re most against, and realize it isn’t the Republican nominee.

— Bud Norman

The Bain of Politics

Mitt Romney’s rather easy victory in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary wasn’t unexpected, as he was once governor of a neighboring state and had been campaigning there for the past five years, but we were surprised by the strange line of attack his rivals attempted.

A solid background in business has been Romney’s main selling point to conservatives who are wary of such deviations from conservative orthodoxy, especially the Obamacare-like reforms Romney enacted as governor of Massachusetts, so his challengers attempted to use his successful years with the Bain Capital investment firm against him. The company made a great deal of money by buying failing businesses and making them profitable, a process that sometimes involved axing extraneous workers, and Romney’s challengers somehow found that offensive.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich started it off by accusing Romney of “bankrupting companies and laying off employees.” Rick Perry, Texas’ adroit but tongue-tied governor, piled on by comparing Bain Capital to “vultures.” Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who fought Romney to a virtual tie in the Iowa caucuses, went so far as to take Romney’s comment that “I like being able to fire people” when choosing health care insurance plans and edited it down for an advertisement to “I like being able to fire people.”

Such tactics are to be expected from the Democrats, who are so constitutionally opposed to firing anyone for any reason that Nancy Pelosi remains their leader in the House of Representatives, but it seems a strange thing to do in a Republican primary, where most of the voters have a favorable opinion of capitalism and understand that it sometimes entails laying off workers. The argument might have even increased Romney’s appeal by reminding voters that he has experience taking over organizations awash in red ink and paring them down to an economically functioning size, which is exactly what the next president will need to do with the federal government, and it can’t help his rivals to be sounding like some bleeding-heart Occupy camper.

We expect to hear a lot more about Bain Capital and its ruthless ways if Romney wins the nomination, which looks all the more likely after Tuesday’s win, but we’re not convinced it will work much better with the general electorate. Romney will have ample opportunity to explain that if some workers hadn’t been laid off their companies would have gone out of business, leaving everyone out of work, and that Bain Capital’s efforts have resulted in a net increase in jobs. A large number of people are so resentful of anyone with the power to fire, and so fearful of being fired, that they will be susceptible to the anti-Bain arguments, but we expect that most Americans will be able to see the bigger picture, and that everyone likes being able to “fire” people by taking their business elsewhere.

Americans have been known to “fire” their presidents, after all.

— Bud Norman