By stirring up questions like contraception, he changed the course of the race and may have hobbled Mitt Romney.
Rick Santorum brought two distinctive messages to the Republican presidential race. One, focused on restoring upward mobility, offered opportunities to expand the GOP's audience. The second, reaffirming a militant cultural conservatism, threatened to narrow it. But the latter nonetheless seems more likely to lastingly affect his party -- particularly the presidential hopes of the man who beat him, Mitt Romney.
Santorum's focus on the erosion of upward mobility, particularly in blue-collar communities, was unusual for any politician but virtually unique among Republicans. While his GOP rivals (especially Romney) pretty much confined themselves to celebrating America as a land of unparalleled opportunity, Santorum correctly quoted academic research concluding that a young person born near the bottom of the income ladder now has a better chance of reaching the top rungs in many European countries than in the U.S.
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He offered an unflinching explanation for that reversal. Although the knowledge-based economy is generating great rewards for those who conceive and design innovative products from computer tablets to solar panels, it does too little for people who work with their hands, largely because businesses are mostly manufacturing these innovations abroad. "We are creating all this new technology," Santorum lamented in Marshalltown, Iowa, in December. "But we're not building it here in the U.S."
His diagnosis was much more unconventional than his solution, which revolved around the familiar Republican themes of cutting taxes and regulations for manufacturers. But, at his best, Santorum drew from his background in a Pennsylvania steel town to speak with conviction and compassion about the costs of narrowing opportunity in working-class America.
With his attention to blue-collar distress, the former senator offered Republicans a path to enlarge their advantage among white working-class voters. But even Romney's advisers acknowledge that, given his privileged background, he is unlikely to convincingly seize that baton. Santorum's conservative economic nationalism, like that of Pat Buchanan before him, will likely prove more of a novelty than a model for the GOP.
Santorum's staunch social conservatism, by contrast, will probably cast a more enduring shadow. In his campaign, those issues consistently eclipsed his economic message and left him overly dependent on the votes of one faction, evangelical Christians. (Ironically, Santorum's inability to carry his fellow Catholics in battlegrounds such as Michigan and Ohio probably doomed his campaign.)
He stoked his socially conservative base with a stream of vehement pronouncements -- pledging to expose "the dangers of contraception"; insisting that states should be allowed to ban birth control (while declaring that he himself would vote against such a ban); accusing President Obama of practicing a "phony theology"; and asserting that John F. Kennedy's famous speech on the separation of church and state made him "throw up." Santorum's unrelenting ardor shifted the race's focus from the economic issues that Romney preferred to cultural confrontations, a movement reinforced by a series of concurrent events that included the GOP backlash against Obama's rule requiring religiously based employers to fund contraception in health insurance and Rush Limbaugh's denunciation of a young woman supporting Obama as a "slut."
Romney didn't match the vitriol from Santorum (or Limbaugh), but he never renounced it either. And Romney embraced comparable positions, proposing to terminate all federal funding for Planned Parenthood, to end federal family-planning money for low-income women, and to allow employers to deny contraceptive coverage if it violated their moral beliefs. "Romney has inextricably identified himself with that current in Republican thinking," insists Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. "And women have noticed that."
Romney doesn't have a problem with all women: Polls show him leading solidly among blue-collar white women. But Obama has opened commanding leads with the electorate's most socially liberal component: white women with at least a four-year college degree. He won 52 percent of those voters in 2008; an ABC News/Washington Post poll this week, echoing other recent surveys, showed an unprecedented 60 percent of these women backing the president against Romney. If Obama can stay close to that number, he can lose about two-thirds of all other whites and still win reelection (so long as he remains strong among minorities, as seems likely).
Romney began trying to dig out this week by hitting Obama's economic record for women. But the White House believes that many upscale women are feeling secure enough about the economy to vote on their cultural liberalism. If that equation holds through November, Romney may rue his decision not to paddle against the surging conservative current on social issues that Santorum unleashed with his unlikely ascent.