Apparently, social issues shouldn’t be too much of a voter issue. At least for Rick Santorum, of all people.
In a radio interview with a Cincinnati talk radio host, Santorum blew up when the interviewer asked him about the contraception debate, framed around the idea that the host’s own Catholic conservative wife wasn’t too happy with Santorum.
The deflection is nothing new. When Rick Santorum tried to chortle his way out of responding to Meet the Press’ David Gregory by pulling a Gingrich and blamed the media for concentrating on social conservatism, Gregory fought back:
“Sir, in this campaign you talk about it. And I’ve gone back years when you’ve been in public life and you have made this a centerpiece of your public life. So the notion that these are not deeply held views worthy of question and scrutiny, it’s not just about the press.”
Santorum reiterated that there was no evidence he would ever impose his own personal beliefs or values on Americans, supposedly to assure voters that — despite his religious rhetoric — he can delineate between his convictions and matters of government.
For one, that’s not quite true. Santorum can repeat his stated position that birth control should remain a legal product, but he long-since signed a pledge supporting state and federal personhood legislation that in many cases would ban hormonal birth control like the pill.
Secondly, Santorum’s defense for his personal beliefs as secondary to policy are at the heart of what drove John F. Kennedy to defend his own Catholicism in 1960. JFK successfully convinced voters that he could distinguish between his role as President and his role as a Catholic — almost exactly what Santorum is trying to convince us he can now do but at one point made him want to vomit.
Recent history shows that all this talk of social issues can be a losing battle for Republican candidates. Back in 2000, when George W. Bush began to disappoint the Religious Right, evangelical leader James Dobson spoke out against the influence that moderate Republicans were having on the candidate:
“I think George W. Bush is getting some very bad advice from the Rockefeller Republicans and establishment party members that are urging him to move to the mushy middle, and avoid the contentious issue of abortion…Millions of people care passionately about the pro-life cause, and they’re watching to see what George Bush is going to do with it.”
Flash forward to today, Bush won (twice) by playing the middle and Dobson endorsed Santorum’s 2012 candidacy. But at a time when most Americans identify themselves as politically independent, Santorum seems to think he’s immune from empirical evidence.
As a result, he’s had to run as the conservative alternative to whomever it is he’s running against. And try as he might to downplay his conservatism, Santorum and his campaign know that the votes won’t add up for him without it anymore. Last week, he took second place to Michigan’s native son Mitt Romney despite having been originally hailed as the frontrunner in the Great Lakes State.
And it sort of still worked out. Santorum lost the major metropolitan and suburban areas but dominated in the smaller, more conservative counties. Looking to Tuesday, Santorum is predicted to take second, if not first in Southern states like Georgia.
But the last few primaries and news cycles continue to prove that moderates aren’t necessarily taking to Santorum’s messaging — not his social conservatism, and certainly not his failing attempts to refocus on non-social issues. And one thing’s for sure: his fate, along with the other GOP candidates, lies with mushy middle America.