The Devil and Rick Santorum: Dilemmas of a Holy Owned Subsidiary

Election night in Iowa was a heavenly moment for Rick Santorum. As he marveled over the late breaking tidal wave of support that in just weeks had swept him from nowhere into a virtual tie with Mitt Romney for first place in the state’s Republican caucuses, the former Pennsylvania Senator gushed to supporters about the secret of his campaign’s success: “I’ve survived the challenges so far by the daily grace that comes from God. . . . I offer a public thanks to God.’’ 

But it was not God who saved Rick Santorum. He survived Iowa rather like a blind mole rat might someday outlive a nuclear exchange – by simply burrowing underground while Romney’s Super Pac incinerated Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry, and while Perry tried to demolish Ron Paul, whom he considered a more dangerous rival. In a state where 60% of those attending the 2008 GOP caucuses described themselves as “born again” or evangelicals, Santorum was the only ultra-conservative left for resigned evangelical leaders to swing behind.

Now, as the wall of Super Money comes down on him like a ton of gold bricks, Santorum is likely fated, like Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, and Perry himself, to flame out after a brief moment of glory and go back to working with the energy and health care enterprises that helped make him a millionaire after leaving the Senate.

But this leaves a larger question: Why does this curious “shooting star” pattern of flare ups and flame outs distinguish the quest of hopefuls for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination? The answer lies in the party’s tricky long-term strategy to steer ordinary voters into focusing on wedge issues rather than the economic policies. The party establishment wants Romney, but its voters have been so thoroughly trained to focus on gays and abortion that they cannot sit still behind a candidate who concentrates on business and economic growth.

A Party Built for the 1 Percent

Beginning in the Nixon era, and then with ever greater determination and force after Reagan, GOP leaders have carefully built out a very special party structure. But at what should by all rights be a moment of easy triumph, thanks to the combination of the Great Recession and the Obama administration’s repeated economic policy blunders, the GOP is on the verge of chaos. The carefully elaborated structure of primaries, group appeals, and elaborately layered leadership structures is coming apart. Republican leaders now find themselves superlatively prepared to fight exactly the wrong war.

Their dilemma is easy to understand, if one tears oneself away from media talking heads and the endless election chatter that now fills the US press. As perhaps most painstakingly documented by Larry Bartels, in his 'Unequal Democracy,' Republican policies are stunningly orientated toward making the richest Americans richer and they have consistently done exactly that, by comparison with Democratic regimes.

This is not to say the Democrats do not also cater to segments of the rich – Bartels, like nearly everyone else writing about American politics, jumped too quickly to the conclusion that the partisan differences he detected followed immediately from the direct influence of mass constituencies rather than the choices different blocs of investors made as they appealed to different segments of the electorate while competing to control the parties. But as far as it goes, his point is true and important.

To summarize and retranslate into the language of my investment theory of political parties: Republicans historically secure the incomes of upper income Americans, whatever else they do. By contrast, Democrats typically compete by offering something – and these days, not much at all – to more of the 99%, even as they go whole hog for financial deregulation amid a raft of money from Vampire Squids, telecom monopolists, and other dark forces.

Republican leaders from Nixon, through Reagan, Gingrich, and the Bushes all understood their situation. They knew that to win consistently, they needed to do two things.  First, they had to discourage as many poorer Americans from voting as possible. A succession of Republican administrations, sometimes abetted by conservative Democrats, have worked overtime at this. Once centered on punitive registration requirements, such efforts nowadays focus more on state measures to curtail early voting and, especially, add demands for photo ids.

No less important were the implications for GOP campaigns and political rhetoric. Once GOP leaders got past bromides about encouraging economic growth, to have any chance of appealing to the normal Americans their policies were first to squeeze, and over a generation, to impoverish, the party needed to change the subject from economics when campaigning. Fast.

Wedge Issues: the Weapon That Backfired

Thus it was that Republican leaders tried out one wedge issue after another, looking for anything that would stick. Nixon, Helms, and nearly the whole party played the race card for a long time; some still do. In the eighties, conservative Republicans built alliances with evangelicals and attacked gays. Many also attacked immigrants, while, of course, virtually everyone talked up defense, national security, and guns 24/7. After 9/11, with much help from Fox News and the other networks, they kept Americans on high alert for low reasons, to the point that Republicans in Oklahoma and other states sometimes run against the threat of Islamic law with a straight face. The party also looked with benign neglect at the rise of a libertarian right, though Ron Paul’s current challenge is a bit more than the party establishment, which lives and dies by the Federal Reserve and the Department of Defense, bargained for.

This brings us to the conflicts that are now chewing up the GOP. Most Americans, if they think about electorates at all, probably think of the American voting universe as a natural fact, akin to the tides or the moon. But as Walter Dean Burnham and I have never stopped emphasizing, that is not true. Electorates are like Japanese gardens. They have to be cultivated over long periods if they are to flourish. A host of rules, institutional practices, and careful appeals mobilize some blocs and demobilize others, including decisions about where to spend money to encourage turnout or make sure enough voting machines are available.

In 2012, history has dealt the GOP a hand it hadn’t counted on. The Democrats should be hopelessly vulnerable on the economy just now. The Obama administration’s failure to stimulate the economy sufficiently and address the mortgage problem, along with its single-minded focus on rescuing the financial sector, has left a bitter taste in the mouths of many Americans on both the left and the right. The opportunity for the Republicans is so huge that that the GOP establishment can almost taste it. As Haley Barbour, a former chair of the Republican National Committee who is also one of the most closely connected of all Republican leaders to big business observed recently, “If the 2012 election is about President Obama’s policies and the negative results of those policies, he won’t be reelected; so if I were campaigning, I’d talk about how his policies have made economic growth and job creation harder.”

So the party establishment rallied quickly behind Mitt Romney, though he is the first choice of comparatively few and mistrusted still by many.

The establishment’s problem, however, is that the electorate it so laboriously built over the last generation still has all those wedge issues on their minds. This doesn’t mean they don’t think also about economic issues – the Iowa polls, for example, show plainly that they do. But many GOP voters are in the party now because of the earlier recruiting efforts and habits that reflected their other deep interests. They aren’t going away. Nor are they going to stop caring about those issues, whether the GOP establishment likes it or not.

So the Republican leaders have a problem. A huge percentage – in Iowa it was three quarters – of the electorate that it presides over doesn’t want to follow its lead. In 1953, after riots broke out in the self-styled worker’s paradise of East Germany, Bertolt Brecht famously suggested that the government should dissolve the people and go find another one. That prospect is not open to the GOP establishment. It will need them in the general election, especially if the economy were to improve. So all it can do right now is to unroll its mighty bankroll and bulldoze through its opponents, hoping that none of those being squashed defects to some third party.

But it might just take divine intervention to make this strategy work.


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