Will the GOP Go For the Suit or the Sweater Vest?

If you’ve tuned into any major news outlet in recent weeks, you might come away with the impression that abortion is the issue upon which Election 2012 hinges. Lightning rod or no, the media circuit has been mostly abuzz with “abortion talk,” from the Komen Foundation’s Planned Parenthood imbroglio and the GOP’s all-male “birth control panel,” to Rick Santorum’s fire-and-brimstone commentary on prenatal testing, birth control, and the prosecution of “abortion doctors.”

I’ve little interest in reiterating self-evident feminist truths. What I’d really like to concern myself with, however, is Rick Santorum, the man behind the foot-in-mouth rhetoric – the quasi-evangelical enigma who seems well on his way to being blacklisted by mainstream left- and right-wingers alike.
No candidate – at least since the bowing out of pizza-magnate Herman Cain – has proven as baffling as the former Pennsylvania Senator. It was Rick Santorum, after all, who “surged” on the eve of the Iowa caucus, emerging as a kind of “dark horse” – a robust, unanticipated force to be reckoned with. The story read like this: While frontrunners Romney and Gingrich were busy slinging mud-pies, underdog Santorum stumped on doggedly, muscling his way through the finish line, the good, old-fashioned way. But it was Santorum’s caucus-night speech that definitively tipped the scales in his favor. For voters tuning in for the first time, he appeared articulate and even athletic in his argumentation, pulling off his smiley “compassionate conservative” shtick like a gosh-darn natural. He was folksy, inoffensive; he thrived as a charming, down-home, anti-Romney – at least with his evangelism left on the back burner.

But that Santorum – the one who performed impressively all along the debate circuit – seemed at odds with the off-air Santorum, who insisted that “standing up and defending [heterosexual] marriage” was “the ultimate homeland security.” His unhinged, off-the-trail rhetoric – for instance, his equation of homosexuality to pedophilia and bestiality – left even mainstream Republicans nonplussed. Before long, the teetering balance he’d achieved between “straight-laced conservative” and “bible-thumping evangelical” had tipped into fringe territory.

As of late, Santorum’s made his bread and butter as “Mr. Social Conservative,” trotting out his borderline fanatical views on prenatal testing, birth control, and the prosecution of “abortion doctors” with frightening nonchalance. In an ill-fated CNN interview, he even questioned whether women should serve on the front lines of combat because of “emotions that are involved.” Those soundbites, and others like it, have rebranded Santorum as a kind of “culture warrior” – a religious zealot with a Cro-Magnon perspective on women’s rights. It’s no wonder he’s been ridiculed ad nauseum as a zero-prospect candidate by both the Fourth Estate and the Republican Old Guard.

The reality is that Santorum has 4 Superdelegates to Romney’s 91. He can’t win by any stretch of the imagination. But here’s the kicker: The latest results from Gallup’s nationwide daily tracking poll indicate that 36% of registered Republicans back Santorum over Romney’s 28%. Those numbers – and the paradoxical picture they paint – mean that Santorum matters, and will continue to matter in the relay leading up to the Tampa Convention. Sure, he might not be an electoral game-changer, but he’ll continue to highlight a symbolic divide in the Grand Old Party between the suit and the sweater-vest – the “Chablis Republicans” and “Budweiser Republicans” continuously wrestling for dominance.

It’s a dynamic that’s peculiar to both candidates, and how they’ve defined themselves with respect to each other. Does Santorum’s evangelical streak, for instance, make Romney look good? Or does Romney’s smarmy elitism make Santorum look better? It’s difficult to tell. What’s 100% certain, however, is that the two men provide a study in political contrasts, highlighting each other’s distinct strengths and weaknesses – for better or worse.

Santorum’s eight-point Gallup margin tells me there’s something terribly wrong with candidate Romney – and the gatekeepers know it. Santorum’s improved numbers, in many respects, are less about his advantages, than Romney’s lingering disadvantages. Sure, Romney’s got the credentials – the unquestioned economic savvy that, according to a Washington Post-ABC News Poll, 50% of Americans trust over Obama’s 44%. But fewer constituents seem to be voting for him, than voting against Obama –and when they do cast their ballot for Romney, they do so begrudgingly.

Which leads us to ask: why the reluctance? As far as voters are concerned, Romney is of Wall Street: a predatory, big-business capitalist, rather than a sympathetic blue-collar or small-business advocate. He oozes so much wealth he might as well be named Mitt “Moneybags” Romney. Of course, that isn’t to say that the former Massachusetts Governor should be crucified for hard work or good fortune – simply that he’s perceived by voters as a dreaded “one-percenter” who doesn’t play for the underdog, for the average American. And it shows. When Mitt Romney insists that “Corporations are people, my friend,” it’s a stab in the gut to unemployed America. And when he says he’s “not concerned about the very poor,” it’s the rhetorical equivalent of swilling a thousand-dollar Merlot.

In politics, perception is 80% of the game, and Romney has unfortunately been adorned with a big scarlet “E.” E, that is, for elitist – a dreaded, campaign-killing word for today’s Republican political aspirants. No wonder there’s something appealing about Rick Santorum’s “Vox Populi, Vox Dei”-style campaign, and not just for “guns-and-bible” Republicans.
Say what you will about him, but Santorum can connect with blue-collar and middle-class constituents in ways that $250 million dollar-Mitt Romney cannot. For GOPers, however, it comes down to a matter of preference. Who’s more distasteful in today’s political climate: an elitist or an evangelical?

Read the original column after the jump.

*This article is temporarily unavailable due to the website construction for JHU News-Letter. Please e-mail me for a text version if interested.

(February 2012, JHU News-Letter)



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