Rick Santorum: A genius?

First things first.  As I wrote this last night, I was listening to the video of Rep. Weiner’s press conference where he apologized for sending inappropriate pictures of himself over Twitter to someone that was not his wife.  Great.  I’m not really prepared to write about that story without excessive profanity and perpetual disappointment in these men.  So, instead, I’ll hold off and write the piece I intended to post today.

In high school, Rick Santorum spoke at my high school and those of us in the Teenage-Republicans (TARs) were able to meet then Senator Santorum and have a photo with him around the flagpole.  Classic Americana.  Well, I’ve come along way since then.  I’m still politically active and (generally) fiscally conservative.  Though I live in Connecticut, attend law school and am a registered Independent.  From the outside it probably looks like I’m a long way from the TARs.  In reality, I like to think of it as a change toward the Center and for the better.  I started the pickle to try to apply two principles to the national political stories I read – practicality and common sense.  Does it make sense? And can you pull it off? So, a few years ago, I voted for President Obama.  It made sense and I believed him.

On the other side, this is where Rick Santorum and I part ways.

Since that day over 10 years ago, I haven’t heard him say one thing that’s realistic for the way our political culture and society operate.  If you like idealism, get ready.  Santorum is the king of playing the party line and providing the most idealistic vision of what conservative politics are all about.  In some ways, I respect that.  It’s pretty consistent and he actually believes in that vision.  My problem is that it’s totally unrealistic.  Santorum’s messages are marked by sweeping changes, dramatic shifts in the social and economic landscapes and radical departure from our government’s current structure.

This is why I think Santorum is a genius.

By declaring his candidacy for President, Santorum moves the entire dialogue farther to the Right.  Pawlenty, Romney and Gingrich now have to contend with a candidate who rivals Sarah Palin on the far Right.  By doing so, the major news outlets portray a Republican party still dominated by social conservatives.  Whether or not Santorum actually thinks he can beat President Obama in 2012 is irrelevant.  His presence in this campaign provides the perception to everyone else – Republican or otherwise – that the GOP and the country is far more conservative than I think we actually are. News outlets report Santorum’s popularity, broadcast his speeches, report his poll numbers and all of the sudden Santorum is a major part of the campaign season.

So what?

In the early Republican primaries, we’ll likely have voter turnout somewhat lower than in 2008.  That means if 60% of all registered Republicans show up to vote and Santorum gets 25% or 30% of that vote in Iowa or South Carolina, an incredibly small group of people will give him the perception of popularity and strength.  Then, those voters will end up propelling a very conservative agenda to the national headlines.  Literally a few thousand people here or there in two or three states will drive several news cycles (or more) and end up giving the country a (false) impression of how strong the far Right agenda is.

I cannot imagine this strategy is good for a Republican party that needs moderates and Independents to beat President Obama. But it is very good for social conservatives and “Teavangelicals” to continue to dominate Republican politics.  Is the country actually moving Right? Do Republicans and Tea Partiers really want to split the Republican party? These questions, including continued debate over Santorum’s message(s) and media attention on the GOP, will have the effect of bringing Santorum’s agenda to center stage.

This strategy is how Ralph Reed types continue to scare moderate Republicans and strong arm the centrist candidates in primary season.  By running for President, Santorum has not given the Republican party a better chance of beating Barack Obama in 2012, but he has ensured that we’ll continue to talk about the power of the religious right and may even get a few pundits talking about how the country is moving Right. Genius.

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