The State of the GOP Race

by Michael Sean Winters

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Two key facts emerged from the results in Michigan’s GOP primary. First, Mitt Romney only wins when he outspends his opponents by more than two-to-one, almost all of it going to negative advertising, and even then, and in the state he once called home, Romney barely crosses the finish line ahead of his rivals. Second, Santorum is a dreadful candidate.

To say that Romney is unloved by the Republican Party is, by now, to speak a truism. Even in Arizona, where he beat Santorum by twenty points, a majority of voters cast their ballots for someone other than Romney. Anecdotally, I had dinner the other night with a longtime Republican friend who could not tell me very much about why he was supporting Santorum, but repeated several times “He is not Romney.”

The anti-Romney animus in the heart of the GOP base has many sources. His record in Massachusetts is the prime difficulty, especially his health care overhaul. But, at a deeper level, Romney’s inability to come across as authentic is what hurts him the most with the GOP base which consists largely of white evangelicals committed to the Tea Party’s political agenda. For people who grow up listening to personal testimonies about their conversion experience, authenticity is important. They can tell when someone is faking it and reward authenticity above all else. The noxious self-centeredness of Tammy Faye Bakker did not keep millions of people from sending in their checks to the PTL Club because Tammy Faye was so obviously authentic: She really did believe shopping was the best form of therapy. The fact that she had almost nothing of consequence to say about the spiritual life mattered less than the fact that her praise for God’s blessings was so supremely authentic. Perhaps, Romney should try lots and lots of eye shadow.

So, it is not just Romneycare that hurts Romney. It is the habit he has of looking down when he tells a fib. Has anyone else noticed that? When Romney describes himself as some variation of hyper-conservative, he looks down at his feet. He knows he puts on ideology the way other people put on a second-hand sweater, and in his striving to appear authentic he actually proves the opposite. Second-hand ideas, like second-hand clothes, come easily off and on.

Unfortunately, over the past week, Santorum has resembled Romney in this regard rather than contrasting himself with him. I watched snips of the weekend shows, and in every interview, Santorum seemed to be stepping away from his social conservative stances, downplaying his sentiments, arguing with the interviewer that he has not really been talking about social issues, that the media has caricatured him. He has forgotten the adage that you dance with the girl you brought and ended up looking like a political hack rather than as a true blue conservative whose views are as unshakable as the Bible.

If Santorum wants to breathe new life into his campaign, he needs to link his conservative social views with his conservative economic views. One of his strongest parts of his stump speech is when he talks about the relationship between poverty and single parenthood. Sometimes, he comes across as sanctimonious, but when he is at his best, he sounds like the kind of conservative who actually cares about families and the pressures they face, not just from the economy but from the culture. Many middle class and working class families not only resented NAFTA, not only did they get little but crumbs from the table during the Internet boom years of the Clinton era, many of them believe, sometimes correctly, that the nation’s political elites of both left and right, as well as the economic elites, don’t give a hoot about them and their lives. These voters are not inclined to tend toward Romney who embodies the one percent worldview with such astonishing ease, many of these voters would be up for grabs in November and they have not been enchanted by the professorial style of Mr. Obama.

Santorum could also benefit from drawing a clearer contrast between his views and those of Cong. Ron Paul. True, Paul is not a threat to the nomination, but his ideas are a threat to the beliefs of many conservative Christians. One of Santorum’s strongest debate moments came when he challenged Paul after the latter asserted that the individual is the basis of all society and all freedom and Santorum countered that the family is the essential building block of society. The idea here is not that Santorum can convince Mr. Paul’s supporters to abandon their radical libertarianism, but that he can put Romney on the spot, making him flesh out whether his views are more in line with Paul’s libertarianism or more in line with the social conservative worldview of evangelicals.

Unfortunately for Santorum, time is short and his advisors do not appear up to the task of capitalizing on his prior success. In this morning’s Washington Post, I read this:

“There’s a lot that’s written about Rick that he feels is not really who he is,” said John Brabender, a top adviser. “Instead of letting perceptions become the reality based upon what we would consider images that are pushed by his opponents or segments of the news media that might be less favorable, he wants to provide a fuller picture of the reality.”

Huh? Can you follow that syntax? Did this Brabender fellow have something to do with the new translation of the Missal? But, the bigger point is not to run from the portrayal of Santorum as a social conservative – “not really who he is” – but, instead, embrace and explain it. Santorum needs a stump speech that begins with a series of attacks on liberal policies, and each attack should be prefaced with the words, “I am accused of being too conservative, and I welcome the accusation because I think liberals have…..”

Time is short. Few delegates have been selected so far, but next week is a mini-Super Tuesday with more than 400 delegates at stake. Santorum does not have the time to build the kind of campaign organization Romney has, and it would not matter hugely if he did. Santorum needs to change the narrative about himself and rally that majority of the GOP electorate that still can’t bring themselves to vote for Romney.

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