The Santorum Threat

Rick Santorum

You would be forgiven for thinking that Rick Santorum disappeared back into the political wilderness with the end of the 2012 presidential campaign, destined only to pop up occasionally on Fox News to wring his hands about the private sex lives of his neighbours, or to pen wacky columns for World Net Daily.

But you would be wrong.

The great and the good of the Republican Party (and Mark Sanford) have been showing up at the annual Faith & Freedom Coalition conference this past week, to stroke the egos of the evangelical “Christians” and “moral majority” Bible-thumpers therein assembled. Featured prominently among the speakers, none other than Rick Santorum.

Politico reports his speech in the context of Santorum’s implicit criticism of the Mitt Romney 2012 campaign, specifically the focus on the “You Didn’t Build That” theme:

The former Pennsylvania senator recalled all the business owners who spoke at the Republican National Convention.

“One after another, they talked about the business they had built. But not a single—not a single —factory worker went out there,” Santorum told a few hundred conservative activists at an “after-hours session” of the Faith & Freedom Coalition conference in Washington. “Not a single janitor, waitress or person who worked in that company! We didn’t care about them. You know what? They built that company too! And we should have had them on that stage.

Rick Santorum is dangerous, because he alone (with the partial exception of Ron Paul’s principled candidacy) instinctively gets something about the American electorate that is all but completely lost on all of the other past and potential Republican presidential candidates over the past two election cycles.

He understands that – as we saw with the recent Bilderberg Meeting protests – an increasing number of people are becoming disenchanted with the status quo system of economic and financial governance, and are losing faith in the American dream and any hope of regaining the middle class lifestyles that they once took for granted. And he understands the undercurrent of resentment resulting from this realisation, and the corrosive effect on Mitt Romney’s base of support.

The article continues:

Santorum did not mention Romney, whom he challenged in the primaries, by name during a 21-minute speech in a dim ballroom at the Marriott (a company on whose board Romney sits). But there was no doubt who he was talking about.

“When all you do is talk to people who are owners, talk to folks who are Type A’s who want to succeed economically, we’re talking to a very small group of people,” he said. “No wonder they don’t think we care about them. No wonder they don’t think we understand them. Folks, if we’re going to win, you just need to think about who you talk to in your life.”

Trying to carve out a role as a leading populist in the 2016 field, Santorum insisted that Republicans must “talk to the folks who are worried about the next paycheck,” not the CEOs.

This really gets to the rub of the problem, and is an exact restatement of my recent arguments against the secretive Bilderberg group. The Bilderberg attendees meet in secret with other highly successful people just like themselves, and presume to prescribe policies and solutions for the entire world based on their extraordinarily narrow range of experience. Similarly, the majority of GOP presidential candidates wouldn’t spend a moment of their lives in the company of someone who couldn’t write them a fat campaign cheque at the end of the day, but instinctively understand the preoccupations and concerns of business owners and rich financiers. And based on this narrow set of acquaintances they presume to create solutions “for the good of the country”.

Rick Santorum stands out among a sorry crowd of potential Republican contenders as someone who can not only talk to the “47 percent”, but also speak up for them.

Never mind that the solutions that he proposes – more protectionism, propping up inefficient, declining American industries and preventing the inevitable and needed transition toward a more knowledge-based economy – would actually harm this constituency so dear to his heart, as I explained last year when I dubbed him the “Pied Piper of Pennsylvania”. By virtue of the fact that he actually takes the time to understand and advocate for this group of downtrodden Americans, he will inevitably pick up a lot of support should he choose to enter the 2016 Republican presidential primary race.

Unfortunately, by voting for Rick Santorum not only do you get his special nostalgic, doomed-to-failure (but very populist) economic policy, you also get the basket of socially regressive and (in some cases) out-and-out bigoted policies for which he proudly and unapologetically stands. Hence the danger.

Yes, it is slightly ridiculous to be thinking about 2016 already. But at the present time, there is only one Republican who really gets it when it comes to the economic frustrations of the American middle and working class. And the danger – the Santorum Threat – is that if the economic outlook has not significantly improved by the time of the next election, and if the rest of the Republican field remains incapable of sympathising with anyone other than hedge fund managers and “job creators”, the man who lost out to Mitt Romney in 2012 could steal the nomination in three years’ time.

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Sanford Wins

Well, I was wrong.

Based on pre-election polling data, and an excess of trust in the wisdom of the electorate, I predicted that the Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch would defeat the Republican former governor Mark Sanford in South Carolina’s 1st congressional district election.

Politico reports:

In the end, the nail biter that late polls hinted at never materialized: Sanford crushed Colbert Busch, 54 to 45 percent.

A turning point in the race came two weeks ago, when Sanford held a mock debate with a cardboard cut-out of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, implying that the California Democrat — persona non grata in conservative South Carolina – was a stand-in for his Democratic opponent.

The former governor endured days of derision from the press for the move — Mark Sanford, once regarded as a viable potential presidential candidate, was debating a piece of cardboard.

But behind the scenes, Sanford’s aides grinned: Every time a reporter put “Pelosi” and “Colbert Busch” in the same sentence, the Republican was winning.

From reading this article it is clear that Sanford ran a far superior campaign to Busch. Tightly-controlled campaigns such as Colbert Busch’s, with handlers keeping the candidate away from any potentially awkward encounter with a real person, are almost never the best way to win, let alone the right way to behave, and yet that is precisely the model that Colbert Busch chose to follow.

Sanford, by contrast, ran an old-fashioned retail politician campaign, barnstorming the district, accepting every invitation for interview or appearance, and offering no end of mea culpas whenever he was asked about his chequered past.

The article continues:

This time, Sanford was, in a sense, running from scratch once again. Without the trappings of the governorship, he hop-scotched the Lowcountry in a black van driven by an aide. After spending a year in obscurity, he was reintroducing himself to voters — soothing the concerns of voters who still felt squeamish about what he had done.

In a district rich with evangelical voters, he adopted religious language to describe his personal journey, talking about a “God of second chances.”

“His strength of his campaign style is that he’s out there every day,” said Scott English, who served as Sanford’s gubernatorial chief of staff. “He loves being around people, and that’s the hallmark of his campaign.”

He ran a smart campaign because he knew how to run a smart campaign. Because he has been doing this since the age of 34. Because he is a career politician.

In South Carolina, the better candidate – but the worse representative – prevailed.

Why Politicians Are Hated

On Tuesday, voters in South Carolina’s first congressional district will go to the polls to choose whether they want to elect Elizabeth Colbert Busch, a Democrat, or Mark Sanford, a Republican.

Mark Sanford was formerly the governor of that same state, a career politician, who was forced to leave office in June 2009 after explosive details of an extra-marital affair gave him too many of the wrong kind of newspaper headlines. However, after a short time in the political wilderness, he felt the need to return to the world of political power, and won the Republican nomination to run in the election.

The voters of the first congressional district did not look kindly on Sanford’s early attempt at redemption, and he is almost certainly likely to lose what was otherwise an eminently winnable seat for the Republicans on polling day.

Two things stand out here – first, the stupidity of the state Republican Party that they would nominate such a flawed candidate. But second, and most important, is what Mark Sanford represents. He is the epitomy of a career politician, whose whole life was about gaining political power, and who is totally unable to contemplate a career doing anything else. Oh, he may waffle about “devoting himself to public service” and suchlike, but it is self-serving nonsense. His career was, and is, about power, the pursuit of political power, and nothing else.

And it is precisely this phenomenon of the ubiquitous career politician which explains why people are so thoroughly disenchanted with politics and politicians today. Here in Britain, and evidently in the United States too.

Ask a typical voter (or non-voter, as these often make up more than half of our potential electorate) what is their idea of a typical politician, and you won’t hear a rapturous description about some incredibly well-credentialed person, someone who has a proven track record of success in their life, someone who has been a part of their community, who understands and knows and talks with people from all walks of life, and who was called to politics to try to accomplish something for the good of their fellow people and their nation, and who intends to do their part and then go back to living their life.

No.

The typical voter, once they swallow the bile that rose into their throat upon hearing your question, is more likely to paint a picture of an oily, self-entitled oik who got into politics for the power and trappings associated with it, who is intent more on climbing the greasy pole of power rather than serving their constituents, and who intends to cling to their position for as many elections and terms as they can possibly get away with, health and lack of scandal permitting.

In other words, there is no concept of the citizen-politician any more. Perhaps in Britain there never was, at least not in the modern age, but throughout American history one can see many examples. Look no further than the father of the nation, George Washington, who not only rejected entreaties for him to become a king-like figure to be addressed as “Your Majesty”, but finished serving his presidential term before retiring to his home and his farm.

You don’t get that with today’s class of professional politicians. Sadly, the well-trodden route taken by today’s slick young political wannabees is almost unvarying from candidate to candidate.

In Britain it looks like this:

1. Ingratiate yourself with your chosen political party’s university society, and start climbing the ranks. On day one of your first term. Get on committees. Make friends with the influential people.

2. Outside of your political society and party political affiliations, be as dull as possible. For heaven’s sake, don’t entertain any foolish notions of doing anything controversial, or exciting, or distinguishing, or any of the things that students should do. You can have no black marks on your resume when the time comes.

3. Graduate and move into a boring job. The law will do nicely, as you won’t be short of opportunities to make powerful new connections.

4. Join the local party association wherever you live, and get involved. Very involved. Attend all the meetings, all of the garden parties, all of the school fairs and church bake sales (if you do church – no longer required or admired). Try to become a school governor if you can, or get onto the board of a local charity. You are now Involved In The Community.

5. Schmooze. Schmooze, schmooze, schmooze. Climb the ladder. Think about trying to become a parliamentary researcher or assistant for an existing MP if you have the connections, or join a  “think tank”. Write lots of articles for anyone who will publish them. It doesn’t matter if they are any good or not.

6. Get selected as the party’s candidate. It doesn’t matter if it’s an unwinnable seat the first time, you are still building your profile. Campaign hard, and ultimately win at all costs.

7. Congratulations, you’ve been elected to parliament. Now you can choose whether to climb the ladder within your parliamentary party and try to get a cabinet position, or just relax and be a constituency MP. But why would you want to do that? Your whole life has been a continuous glide toward the Palace of Westminster, and you sure aren’t about to take your foot off the accelerator now.

And so we have a whole generation of MPs from all parties – people like Chukka Umunna – who are basically airbrushed, well-groomed and telegenic candidates who never really lived in the real world before entering politics and who have no idea what they would do with their lives if they ever had to leave it. Umunna likes to style himself as “the British Barack Obama”. He is not. Like or dislike Obama, he does possess significant leadership and rhetorical skills, and did his fair share of work in the community before his rapid ascent through the political ranks.

An important point here – we should not look to deify private sector experience above all else as Mitt Romney tried to do in the 2012 US elections. Running a government is not the same as running a private enterprise, and different skills and experiences are needed. Success in the private sector does not automatically lead to success in the public sector, and vice versa. So it is not my contention that we should be looking exclusively at corporate C-suites or the ranks of entrepreneurs for our future political leaders. There are people who have served the community deeply in many ways, who are capable of becoming excellent legislators and political leaders.

But neither should we be looking for the next bland, cookie-cutter candidate who has gone through the 7-step “become an MP by the age of 35” programme. If a candidate’s life up until that point has been all about gaining political power, what chance is there that they will ever want to relinquish it and do anything else after their first term? Their second? Their third? Their fourth? Until retirement beckons?

Thus, without term limits we end up with the same boring old faces hanging around forever, and with them a dearth of new ideas.

In South Carolina, voters are about to reject Mark Sanford’s attempt at early political redemption because they do not recognise that he has a divine right to be a politician forever and ever, until he dies, simply because that is what he wants to do with his life.

In a democracy, we get the politicians and leaders that we deserve. Let’s stop deserving bad ones.