Saturday, January 07, 2012

The Rise of Rick Santorum and the Conservative Movement

I've been thinking about what the rise of Rick Santorum means for the Democrats and Obama, for the GOP, and for this country in general.  His rise is nothing but good news for Obama and the Democrats; it's a kind of watershed moment for the GOP and for conservatism generally; and for the country it's another harbinger of the last gasp of fundamentalist social conservatism.

In some respects, the rise of Santorum is even more worrisome than that of Sarah Palin.  Sarah Palin was never a serious political personality.  She has always been much more of a kind of reality show entertainer; and though her appeal to socially conservative evangelicals was substantial, she really didn't come across to me as a hard core social conservative the way that Santorum does.

In any event, should Santorum get the GOP nomination (which I highly doubt), his social conservatism will not only scare the liberal base of the Democratic Party into turning out in droves to vote for Obama, but political independents and moderates, who tend to be much more socially liberal, will also turn out in large numbers for Obama.  The fact is that we live in a much more secular and socially tolerant country then at any point in this nation's history.  The only rallying cry that conservatives have that may be effective against Obama and the Democrats is that of a smaller, more balanced-budget-conscious, and less intrusive (socially and economically) government.  Yet Santorum fails on this front.  He is really a one pony show -- social conservatism -- buffeted by an intrusive and, if necessary, big government approach to imposing his socially conservative values.  Libertarians and true small-government conservatives know this about Santorum.  And I think that they'll be just as worried about a Santorum presidency as liberals and moderates would be.

For all his faults, Obama has been much more of a "Liberaltarian" on social issues and where he has pushed for greater state involvement in the economy, it has been in sectors where the market appears to have failed to generate adequate responses to abuses and dysfunction that society as a whole wants addressed: regulation of the financial markets and banking industry, protection of consumers from market predators, and reform of the health care market that can insure access to adequate health care to all Americans at affordable prices.  Even though we can disagree over Obama's proposed solutions to these problems, I think most would agree that these are issues requiring attention and involvement by the government.  To have the government just sit back and do nothing, letting market forces decide outcomes in these areas, as some conservatives would advocate, is not something that resonates with a significant majority of the population.

So, the upshot is that a Santorum candidacy compared to an Obama candidacy, especially when it comes to a perception of who would be the more likely to thrust government into the private lives of individuals, has to fall out decidedly in favor of Obama.  I think most people, even libertarian-leaning or  small-government fiscal conservatives, would probably think that Santorum could actually be a worse choice than Obama.  And that's not to mention Santorum's saber-rattling when it comes to Iran at a time when this country does not want more war and is very disturbed by continued war-mongering rhetoric.

For the country as a whole, Santorum's social conservatism is a relic of bygone days.  Issues like gay marriage, DADT, faith-based government programs, absolutist anti-abortion stances, etc., are more and more settled in the direction of tolerance, even if not all out acceptance, by a growing majority of Americans in all social, economic, and even religious constituencies.  The Santorum surge is really nothing more than the frenzied anxiety of a dwindling social fundamentalist consistency who are very aware and very disturbed by their growing irrelevance to mainstream public opinion on social issues.  This constituency is backed into a corner by modernity, is acknowledging that there is no path out to survival, and thus is gearing up for its inevitable fight to an assured death.

Even if Santorum doesn't win the nomination, his ascendancy at a critical moment in the nomination process will require Romney and the other GOP contenders to parrot some of Santorum's big-government, socially-conservative ideals in order to try to strip off some of Santorum's support.  And this can only be of benefit to Obama and the Democrats.

2 comments:

Eric said...

I agree that it is highly unlikely Santorum will win the primary, and I agree his candidacy would make Obama's re-election very likely. What's more, I don't really like Santorum that much... moreso than any other candidate, Santorum was part of the Republican spending orgy of the 2000's. People like to compare Rick Perry to George W. Bush, but the truth is Perry is much more conservative than Bush. Santorum, on the other hand, is practically Bush's ideological twin. He's a hawk on defense, and very moderate, even arguably liberal, on domestic policy outside his social conservative stances.

With all that said, I am glad Santorum has been getting his moment in the sun. I disagree with much of his social conservatism, and even social conservatives will admit it is just not the right time to be fighting that battle. But in the debates he has consistently brought up what I consider to be once of the most interesting arguments I've heard: that a large part of our current and future economic woes are due to the destruction of the traditional family. While I disagree with Santorum's proposed solutions to that problem, I think there is probably something to his argument, and it is an argument that Americans, especially young Americans, need to hear.

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