#UnravelTheSweater: Rick Santorum’s Serious Electability Issues

Rick Santorum - Unravel the Sweater

UPDATE: More on Santorum’s electability problem at this link. They suggest, as I do below, part of the problem isn’t just the statements, it’s a self-inflicted inability to pick the issues you really want to focus on.

UPDATE 2: The hits just keep coming: Santorum is unelectable, says this article at CNN about why very few in the Congress are endorsing him.

One veteran GOP leadership aide called him a culture warrior likely to turn off moderate voters.

“The fear of Santorum is that it would just be a slow decay. There is no faith that he would bring independent or moderate voters. If he does well on Super Tuesday you’ll have serious people talking about convention strategies,” said the Senate GOP leadership aide.

Rick Santorum is unelectable. Here are just a few reasons why:

1. Rick Santorum’s Position on Social Issues are Significantly to the Right of Most Americans. Rick Santorum is tacking hard to the right to win votes in the primary. There’s good evidence he’s taken some of his positions out of political expediency. For example, it’s now been made public he was pro-choice until he ran for Senate. But regardless of his shift, the statements he is making now at best show he’s very, very bad at picking battles (a skill a president must have) and at worst paint him as too conservative and even outrageous to mainstream America. And he’s generated this sentiment after being in the spotlight only about a week. If we want to defeat Barack Obama, the GOP nominee will have to focus on the issues that appeal to middle voters, not scare them off. So in my mind this is not really about whether Rick’s right or wrong, but his skill at building consensus as president, and how he’s perceived. In the words of Jennifer Rubin, a conservative writer at the Washington Post:

Santorum likes to say that he is principled, but in fact he’s vividly demonstrating day after day that his strongly held social views, when uttered aloud in dogmatic tones, sound outrageous to voters who aren’t hard-core social conservatives.

Bill Press of the Chicago Tribune writes of his disgust when he recently read Santorum was outpacing Mitt in Michigan (emphasis added):

Which prompts me to ask my Republican friends: What are you smoking? Are you seriously considering picking Rick Santorum to be the Republican Party’s nominee in 2012? He’d be worse than Newt Gingrich.

Santorum brags about his electability. But, remember, this is the man who, after two terms in the Senate, lost his 2006 bid for re-election in blue-collar Pennsylvania by 18 points. Why? Because he was so extreme on the social issues — and still is.

In an op-ed in the New York Times, Maureen Dowd displays some of the negative reaction people not on the far right have been having to Rick Santorum’s positions. Even though he says he won’t impose his beliefs on others, some are not convinced, and that worries them significantly:

He told The Washington Post on Friday that, while he doesn’t want to fund contraception through Planned Parenthood, he wouldn’t ban it: “The idea that I’m coming after your birth control is absurd. I was making a statement about my moral beliefs, but I won’t impose them on anyone else in this case.”

That doesn’t comfort me much. I’ve spent a career watching candidates deny they would do things that they went on to do as president, and watching presidents let their personal beliefs, desires and insecurities shape policy decisions.

Mullah Rick is casting doubt on issues of women’s health and safety that were settled a long time ago. We’re supposed to believe that if he got more power he’d drop his crusade?

Rick Santorum’s statements cause people to wonder if he’s running for pastor-in-chief or commander in chief. To give you a sense of what he’s said that’s come to light just this week that have caused shock outside of those furthest to the right, I collected just a few statements:

a. He compared the state of America to Nazi Germany, leading many in the media to ask if Obama is the equivalent of Hitler. See this conversation at MSNBC which, admittedly, is not conservative-friendly, but indicates the type of reaction Senator Santorum’s remarks would get in a general election. The question is, why go there?

b. He called contraception harmful to women and immoral, and said states should have the right to restrict access to it. The following is from the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin, who, again, is a conservative (emphasis below is mine):

The impression that Santorum finds the prevalent practice of birth control “harmful to women” is, frankly, mind-numbing. If he meant to focus on teen sexual promiscuity, he surely could have, and thereby might have sounded less out of touch.

Now, he qualifies his religious views by saying he doesn’t vote against contraception “because it’s not the taking of a human life” (in other contexts he has emphasized that as a legal matter he has no problem with contraception). But how does that square with his professed belief that a candidate’s values are essential to understanding and predicting his behavior? Perhaps that’s an abortion-only rule. (And really, where are George Stephanopoulos’s questions on this topic when you need them?)

In any event, this sort of thing undermines Santorum’s electability argument. (Current polling match-ups between President Obama and each of the two frontrunners, before the GOP has a nominee and before Santorum’s record is out there, are virtually useless.) This is how, in part, he lost Pennsylvania — by appearing extreme and schoolmarmish, too far to the right of average voters in a purple state. If he is the nominee in 2012, he might get some blue-collar fellows, but what about those women in Ohio, Pennsylvania, etc.? And what about more secularized suburban communities? Fuggedaboutit.

c. Yesterday a video of a speech surfaced in which he says Satan is targeting America.

“Satan [is] attacking the great institutions of America, using those great vices of pride, vanity and sensuality as the root to attack all of the strong plants that has so deeply rooted in the American tradition …. This is a spiritual war, and the father of lies has his sights on what you would think the father of lies, Satan, would have his sights on: A good, decent, powerful, influential country — the United States of America. If you were Satan, who would you attack in this day and age? There is no one else to go after other than the United States.”

The more comments that surface like this, the more he can be painted by the media, the left and center as a nut that can’t be elected. People wonder if he’s going to separate church and state in his presidency. He can’t seem to during the campaign.

d. He recently stated women shouldn’t be in combat, likely offending the women in the military.

e. He said in his book women who work are rationalizing a desire to earn more things rather than stay home with children. Think this will win fans with independent women? Or gain traction with households struggling to make ends meet? Again from the Chicago Tribune (emphasis added):

In his 2005 book, “It Takes a Family,” for example, Santorum scolds working mothers for using the excuse of having to help support the family only because it “provides a convenient rationalization for pursuing a gratifying career outside the home.”

So many women are working outside the home today, charges Santorum, not because they have to, but because “the radical feminists succeeded in undermining the traditional family and convincing women that professional accomplishments are the key to happiness.” Asked recently by David Gregory on “Meet the Press” to explain or defend that statement, Santorum — in a stunning display of masculine courage — blamed his wife for helping to write that paragraph.

Everybody knows that women vote in higher numbers than men. So if Republicans want to nominate a candidate who alienates most women, be my guest. Barack Obama could carry all 50 states.

f. He said this week that President Obama adheres to a phony theology, causing some to ask whether he was claiming President Obama wasn’t Christian. For many people this suggestion has racial overtones.

g. He has said pre-natal testing should not be covered by mandatory insurance because it leads to more abortions. Note he wants to de-fund the testing, not just the abortions. This hits at the heart of parents worried their unborn child may have birth defects. Will any American that cares for its unborn child really want to eliminate insurance coverage for pre-natal testing? Leaving aside the issue of whether the Federal government should be mandating insurance in the first place, Santorum’s views on this sound very paternalistic and against the sentiments of most Americans. If the government is going to be in this business, saying it shouldn’t cover pre-natal testing is a bomb sitting in Santorum’s lap. Moderates and independents will have no patience for this position.

h. Santorum says there should be no rape or incest exceptions for abortion, adding: “I would advocate that a doctor that performs an abortion should be criminally prosecuted for doing so.”

This position is among the most strict in the pro-life movement, and attract attention as particularly extreme, even among those on his side.

i. Santorum has made many controversial statements about homosexuality, the details of which have been well-documented.

What we’re seeing is that these comments cause such controversy among the center-right, independents and liberals that Rick Santorum is unelectable. He’ll get no forgiveness for any of these comments from a liberal press. Even if you happen to agree with Rick with respect to some of his positions, as I’ve learned, sometimes it’s not worth it to say everything you think. You’ve got to pick your battles, especially as president. Obama burned all his political capital passing Obamacare and hasn’t accomplished anything since. Where will Santorum burn his political capital? He’s using it now on battles that he’ll lose. I’ve learned in life sometimes it’s more wise to keep the peace than to try to prove yourself right, and rather than having to deal with an uproar, you can have that discussion another day. Jennifer Rubin explains:

If the conservative movement and the GOP cannot distinguish between social issues for which there is support among average voters and those for which there is practically none or between effective proponents of their views and those that scare, alarm and repulse ordinary Americans, especially women, they are in deep trouble, not just in this election. They have fallen prey to Pauline Kael syndrome if they actually believe Santorum’s views and tone are and will be popular with a majority of Americans.

The most recent Gallup polling seems to confirm this: even the GOP says that they find Mitt more electable than Santorum by nearly 2:1.

In a separate USA Today/Gallup survey conducted Feb. 16-19, all Americans were asked which of the two candidates — Romney or Santorum — they believed would have the best chance of beating Barack Obama in November. Overall, 54% of Americans named Romney and 29% chose Santorum.

Fewer Republicans are undecided on this issue, leaving 58% who say Romney has the best chance of beating Obama, while 32% choose Santorum.

Regardless of whether you agree with what he’s saying, Rick Santorum’s non-stop commentary about social issues at best show him to be a poor judge of what battles to fight and, in the larger picture, make him unelectable. Meanwhile Mitt may hold some of the same positions in his heart of hearts, but by wisely focusing on issues voters care most about, and where he can build consensus, Mitt improves the chances a conservative will actually get elected and influence policy in a positive direction on all issues conservatives care about. Rick, while a more strident flag-bearer, will be shot down on his way to the White House and not accomplish anything. My advice to the GOP: take what you can get and pick the guy you yourselves know is more electable.

2. Rick is just the latest flavor of the month. What’s the story been of this election cycle? Rise and fall, rise and fall. The whole time we all knew that it would come down to Mitt vs. someone else, first we thought maybe Michele, then Rick, then Herman, then Newt. Now it’s Santorum’s turn in the sun. But as a current Republican in Congress notes, it’s just that: a turn in the sun. The following is from USA Today, in a story about how Santorum has almost no support in Congress:

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who has not endorsed a presidential candidate but said he would vote for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, said it remains to be seen whether Santorum has staying power. “I think he’s had the advantage of a narrowed field of candidates and throughout the last six months it’s been Mitt Romney and somebody else. He’s gotten his moment in the sun as somebody else,” he said. “The question is will he be able to last longer than the others.”

Consolidation of support behind one non-Mitt was predictable. People said as long as there was a field that was divided on the right, Mitt would do well, and he did. But the question was always going to be what would happen when the more conservatives finally chose just one candidate to support. Mitt would have to take someone on one on one. That appears to be what’s in front of us. So now the GOP must decide: Mitt or Rick. Does the fact there’s one last, consolidated challenger to Mitt mean Mitt is a weak candidate? No. The fact Mitt was always the main choice, who some people have called “inevitable,” means he was the strongest candidate the entire time. With the statements above coming to light, Rick is already wilting under the spotlight. His track record with leadership is non-existent, his economic experience also nil. Despite his tacking hard to the right to take voters from Mitt, very few believe Rick will actually be the nominee. Why? Now that he’s being vetted that’s becoming obvious: he’s unelectable.

3. His unelectability is highlighted by Republicans reportedly panicking should he win Michigan. We should note that Colorado, Missouri and Minnesota are all “pre-vet” votes. While I think that panic is premature, if there’s panic at Santorum possibly winning primaries, we have to ask why. The concern is that Santorum cannot win vs. Obama. Some may say this is the pro-Mitt “Republican establishment” getting concerned. I’d like to meet some of these “establishment” Republicans. I’m not sure they exist. Even if it were true some mystical group of GOP power brokers preferred Mitt, why would that be the case? Republicans in the know would want the best chance to defeat President Obama, and those in Congress would want to keep their jobs. Who has been widely recognized as the best choice by those who care most about defeating Obama? Mitt Romney. Who has the most endorsements from sitting members of Congress? Mitt. Who apparently really frightens those people if he starts to look like a serious contender? Rick Santorum. Why? He can’t win, and everyone knows it.

The Deseret News reported:

Many fear that Santorum represents an impending disaster of Goldwater proportions, tipping dominoes all down the ticket in congressional and state races.

An anonymous high-ranking GOP senator told ABC’s Jonathan Karl that if Romney does not win Michigan he (the senator) will publicly call for a new option.

Note that none of these discussions would be relevant if anyone thought Rick Santorum was electable. The premise is that clearly Santorum is not. And it’s about more than the presidency.

From Eugene Robinson:

The issue, for Republicans, is not just that Santorum would lose in November. It’s that he could be a drag on House and Senate candidates as well. Imagine, say, Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., trying to explain to his constituents why someone who doesn’t fully understand women’s participation in the workforce should be president.

So again why the panic if the GOP turns to Santorum? Because Mitt is electable, and Santorum is not.

4. Santorum is not a fiscal conservative, and right now that’s what people want. Santorum is on the record as supporting earmarks, including for a number of wacky projects, as laid out in this ad, but called “hypocrisy” Governor Romney’s asking for federal assistance to prevent terrorist attacks at the 2002 Olympics (which CNN reports Santorum voted in favor of… who’s the hypocrite?).

5. Lest we forget the main evidence of his being unelectable, Santorum’s Pennsylvania constituents, who know him best, rejected him by 18 points in his last election, when he was a two term incumbent!. Cafferty delivers a stinging list of a few reasons why (the text version is at this link at CNN, but the video is well worth your time):

One of the many, many issues described by Cafferty was Rick’s hypocrisy of attacking his opponent in a prior election for moving to Virginia rather than staying in Pennsylvania, then doing the same himself. The following is from Bloomberg:

Santorum’s 2006 loss came after he was accused by Democrats of being hypocritical for moving his family to suburban Virginia, yet still claiming a property tax deduction and tuition reimbursement in Pennsylvania. The school district where his Penn Hills home was located paid $55,000 to reimburse the online education of his children through the state’s Cyber Charter School program, according to the Pittsburgh Post- Gazette. The state repaid the district in a legal settlement after a Democratic school board member challenged the reimbursement.

It was an issue that resonated with voters and echoed charges Santorum, 53, raised when he won his initial race for the U.S. House in 1990 by attacking his opponent for having moved to Virginia and lost touch with Pennsylvanians.

Bob Casey, Santorum’s 2006 Democratic opponent and the son of a former Pennsylvania governor, said at a general-election debate that “this issue is as much about hypocrisy as it is about residency.”

As a side note, my wife home schools and was shocked that the reimbursement was $55,000, even with six kids. And you’ll forgive one other quick tangent: a very disturbing pattern I see emerging is Rick’s taking money from the taxpayers to pad his own lifestyle. $55,000 from his constituents to pay for his children’s education while living in another state. His PAC and charity, which gave substantially less than 50% of amounts raised to their stated purpose, with the rest going to “administrative expenses” (like trips to restaurants and Starbucks). No wonder Rick loves earmarks: he can give away his constituents’ money and people owe him personal favors. And he’s apparently collected on them since leaving Congress. He’s not had a job outside government since the early 90s, but is now making $1 million a year. If that’s not someone profiting off the system I don’t know what is, and I find this emerging picture of a jigsaw puzzle with Rick benefiting personally from his time in office very disturbing.

Conclusion

The much-awaited consolidation around a non-Mitt candidate is having its last gasp. Meanwhile, a significant and growing plurality have always been firmly with Mitt, and my sense is he’ll be both able to beat Obama and will be a conservative president (best of all worlds). This is not about Mitt having difficulty connecting, but a long expected battle inside the GOP. Mitt has been steady while others have come and gone. I’m confident that Rick Santorum is the last of this line, whether people figure it out before or after Michigan (give Rick more time and he’ll offend more independents). The nomination is still Mitt’s to win. I can’t see Santorum possibly making it through the general with the positions he’s taken above. You can’t veer that far right, then move to the center.

The GOP should remember when it tried nominating someone considered a pure conservative when it chose Barry Goldwater, and it led to a Lyndon Johnson re-election. I dispute that Mitt’s not adequately conservative in the first place, but by independents he’s perceived as more acceptable than Santorum, especially with the latter’s comments recently coming to light. So do we want another legendary Goldwater failure this time around, complete with an Obama second term and a liberal surprise the equivalent of Johnson’s “Great Society?” Or would we rather have a nominee who stands a chance of winning? I think of the fable of the dog who sees a reflection of itself holding a bone in a lake. In trying to get the other dog’s bone, he drops the one he has into the water and loses everything. I think there’s a warning there for the GOP. I think we have a pretty fine bone already.


Please Check Out These Other “Threads” in the #UnravelTheSweater Series:

Unravel The Sweater - Rick Santorum

About Paul Johnson:

Paul Johnson is an attorney for venture capitalists and their portfolio companies by day, husband and father of three teenage boys by night. He’s an avid supporter of Mitt Romney for president and, as a graduate of Brigham Young University, a BYU football and basketball fan. Paul also enjoys competing in triathlons. Because he’s in the “Clydesdale” (over 200 lb.) class, he has even had podium finishes from time to time. Paul also has the distinction of being a big enough U2 fan to be willing to travel to Dublin to see them in their native environment.

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