Against the Rick Santorum Renaissance

by Noam Scheiber | April 10, 2012

The news accounts of Rick Santorum’s exit from the presidential race are rife with testimonials about how the former Pennsylvania senator departs the campaign a much larger figure than when he entered it. “It was an impressive performance and it leaves him with an elevated status and a prominent role as a leader for evangelicals and conservatives,” Ralph Reed told The New York Times. “No one can know what the future holds, but my guess is we haven’t heard the last from Rick Santorum.”

Er, I’m not so sure. So far as I could tell, Santorum was basically the purest distillation of dissatisfaction with the GOP front-runner that existed once the primaries started. Santorum did best when he came off as a generic conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, and when the focus was on Romney’s flaws rather than Santorum’s merits. When Santorum began to dominate the conversation, it was often to the ex-senator’s detriment. He would try to build a case for himself and somehow end up straying not just from the political mainstream, but from what even conservatives care about most these days. (Take his famous comparison of gay marriage to polygamy amid questioning in New Hampshire.) Or he would go off the rails while broaching criticisms of others, as when he said JFK’s 1960 speech on church and state made him “want to throw up,” or when he accused Barack Obama of snobbery for wanting everyone to go to college. 

Those gaffes almost always popped up at inopportune moments. (The “throw up” line came a few days before the Michigan primary that might have vaulted Santorum into contention.) But even dwelling on the gaffes imputes too much agency to Santorum—it suggests he could have won had he been a slightly better candidate. I don’t see it. Santorum’s failure ultimately had more to do with structural factors—Romney’s money, super PACs, an abundance of conservative contenders, the moderate-state primaries that gave the front-runner a firewall—as with any instance of ineptitude. The forces that did in Santorum were, in the end, as far outside his control as the forces that made him. And so it’s hard to credit Rick Santorum with much of anything. 

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