Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Mitt Romney vs. Rick Santorum: Choosing between a fraud and a relic


As we liberals watch Rick Santorum's perhaps unexpected rise in national polls among Republican voters, we are in many ways thrilled that this is happening. His ridiculous ideas, which we politely call "social conservatism," would surely make him a sitting duck in the general election against President Obama. Polls tell us this much, as does common sense.

But many of us, who share nothing of his politics, have been, in a sense, charmed by the man.

Up to this point, it has been easy to give him his due as a relatively competent performer particularly because so many of the other GOP contenders are so incompetent at the craft of politics. It has been possible almost to respect Santorum's charm and abilities as a political force, particularly when we contrast him to Mitt Romney, an absolute disaster of a candidate. Yes, he got to be governor of Massachusetts. I have no idea how that happened.

We have been complementing Santorum for at least appearing to believe what he says, in contrast to Romney, who clearly has no center, no core beliefs that define him. It's now official. The only thing for sure we know about Mitt Romney is that he wants to be president. Everything else about him could be and likely will be redefined at a moment's notice depending on the circumstances.

Rather than focusing our attention on Santorum's radicalism, we have been giving him a bit of a free pass because it is at least easier to respect someone who has some ability as a politician, and who seems not to be lying every time he stands in front of a microphone.

Okay, Romney is a fraud, and Santorum is some kind of "real thing." It is now past time to understand better what kind of real thing we are dealing with.

Significantly, it is the right who are beginning to be most insistent on smoking Santorum out on his radicalism because they know what a problem his candidacy would be should he win the nomination.

In that vein, I turn it over to Jennifer Rubin
(ed. note: GOP establishment mouthpiece and long-time Romney enthusiast -- MJWS) of The Washington Post, who writes this:

A number of social conservatives, sensing that Rick Santorum has hit a trip wire, are complaining that he's being skewered for being a social conservative. That's demonstrably wrong. The nonstop flaps (some of which concern past episodes that now have come to light) over the last couple of weeks have nothing to do with Santorum's pro-life views or even his opposition to gay marriage. They have to do with his desire to uproot decades-old trends (e.g. women in the workplace, women in combat, use of contraception) and to use religious terminology and judgments to cast aspersions on his opponents (e.g. "phony theology," the devil has infiltrated American institutions). In short, Santorum on social issues is not a conservative but a reactionary, seeking to obliterate the national consensus on a range of issues beyond gay marriage and abortion.

A reactionary is one who seeks to return to a previous state of affairs. It is not a conservative outlook, which in the Burkean sense looks to people as they are, prefers modest over the radical solutions and builds on the existing morals and habits of the society. It is conservative to argue the president should respect and accommodate religious institutions; It is reactionary to go on a quest against contraception and pre-natal testing, both of which the vast majority of Americans utilize or approve of.

Santorum is reactionary in his discomfort with women working outside the home (other than his own working mother, presumably), who he claims were bamboozled by greed or "radical feminists" into seeking fulfillment and equality in the workplace. He is reactionary in declaring that women in the military are fit only to "fly small planes" but not take on the duties they have been assuming under battlefield conditions for years. He is reactionary in telling women (married ones, even!) that contraception is harmful to them.

Whatever one thinks of the nuances of Rubin's case, she captures something essential about consistent conservatism and the fear that many Republicans have of Santorum's recent success.

I haven't changed my mind that Mitt Romney will be his party's nominee. I think, to use that over-used term, Rick Santorum is just about ready to jump the shark. There was very little doubt in my mind that this would happen eventually, and recent events are surely setting the table for that.

My best guess is that, in the long battle that is the GOP nomination process, Santorum's reactionary perspective on social issues will bury him. I know that there are those in the party who will applaud much of what he says, but I don't think it will carry the day.

I don't know if this counts as irony, but Rick Santorum's need to be true to himself, to be true to his radical, reactionary social conservatism is as much his Achilles' heel as is Mitt Romney's inability to be true to anything.

I am glad that, as a Democrat, I don't have to make a choice between a fraud and a relic.


(Cross-posted at Lippmann's Ghost.)

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