The Santorum Effect

    When the news broke yesterday that Rick Santorum was putting his presidential dreams on ice, I had three immediate reactions:

    1. Oh well, so much for history’s first consequential Pennsylvania Republican primary. On the other hand, Mitt Romney now has a golden opportunity to finally win a contest with more than 50 percent of the party vote.2. Oh swell, now we’ll have to endure Five. Long. Months. of veep speculation stories about Rob Portman, who’s so bland that he makes Romney look like a Rastafarian.3. Oh what the hell, we should all give Santorum his due.The guy earned it, after all. Nobody expected him to last this long. Nobody even thought he’d post a double-digit percentage in Iowa. He had no money, scant staff, and he faced a Mitt machine that had been assiduously assembled to steamroll all comers. He also stayed true to himself, an authentic soul. Granted, his authenticity is probably best suited for a papal election in Vatican City circa 1955, but at least we all knew where he was coming from. Unlike the monied shape-shifter who finally ground him down.Yes, Santorum was indeed consequential – but not necessarily for the short-term betterment of his party. Which brings us to point #4, the most important one:There’s a school of thought that he made Romney a better candidate – toughening him up for the autumn race, that sort of thing. Perhaps. But his likelier legacy is that he made it tougher for Romney to prevail in November. His constant theocratic riffs, particularly about women and contraception, pulled Romney down the right-wing rabbit hole, ever farther away from the American mainstream. Romney wanted to stay on his main message, which was economic. But the more that Santorum assailed Romney as a fake conservative, the more Romney felt compelled to move rightward. The more Santorum kept telling the conservative base that Romney could not be trusted, the more Romney felt compelled to pander – insisting that he’s “severely” conservative, vowing to “get rid of” federal funding for Planned Parenthood, signing on to the misogynist Senate Republican amendment that would’ve allowed employers to cite religious conscience as a reason to deny contraceptive coverage to women workers.Thanks to Santorum, in other words, the presumptive Republican nominee has hemorrhaged support from women and swing voters. And thanks to Santorum, the presumptive nominee is arguably worse off with the conservative base than he was a year ago. It’s hard to imagine that the base will now flock with enthusiasm to Romney, after having been repeatedly reminded that Romney only recently was a moderate Massachusetts governor who was soft on social issues and stoked about health care reform. Indeed, it was just two weeks ago when Santorum contended that Romney, saddled by Romneycare, would be “the worst Republican in the country to put up against Barack Obama.”Santorum has essentially conditioned the base to be skeptical about a nominee who will dearly need an enthused base this fall. Indeed, from this point forward, the right-wing activists will have their feet on Romney’s neck. Case in point, already, is this new statement from veteran conservative leader Richard Viguerie: “To date, Mitt Romney has spent about $100 million to drive the conservative candidates from the field, in some case through personal attacks. However, he has spent little effort making the case for his own candidacy to grass-roots movement conservatives. The first great challenge facing conservatives is whether or not Mitt Romney can heal the wounds created by his negative campaigning.” Viguerie, clearly miffed that Santorum was driven from the race, also told The New York Times: “(Romney) can’t say, ‘You have to line up behind me.’ No, no, no. Conservatives are not going to jump until they hear where Gov. Romney wants to take everybody.”So the Santorum Effect continues. Having forced Romney to waste big bucks on an intramural fight, at a time when Romney would have greatly preferred to spend that money on autumn organizational infrastructure; and having exposed Romney’s political weakness (it took Mitt four months and tens of millions of dollars to beat a cash-strapped guy in a sweater vest), Santorum is now the gold standard for conservatism. The GOP base will judge Romney in accordance with that standard.And Santorum will be with us again. Having made the case to the right that Romney is phony, he will soon do the opposite and seek to rally the base to Romney – to prove his loyalty to the party, of course, because he wants to nurture his prospects for 2016 (if Romney loses) or 2020 (if Romney wins). Ah, politics and its endless ironic iterations.But right now, Santorum is merely “suspending” his campaign. That’s a lawyer’s term, a signal that his campaign is officially still in business, for the sole purpose of raising money to pay off his campaign debts. Perhaps Obama’s re-election people would like to make a generous contribution. Given how much Santorum has helped them out, by yanking Romney ever rightward, it’s probably the least they could do.——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.