It's hard to keep a straight face when Rick Santorum says he is the most electable of the Republican candidates. "We need bold colors, not pale pastels," Santorum said last week in Iowa. "Ladies and gentlemen, be bold. Do not have a pyrrhic victory next November, where we elect a Republican, but we don't elect the person who can do what's necessary for America." He touts his experience winning in a swing state while maintaining his conservative credentials, an implicit ding against Mitt Romney's left-leaning record as governor of Massachusetts. It's a dubious claim for Santorum that's little related to reality considering he lost his last election by a historic 18 points.
In today's Washington Post, Michael Gerson somehow manages to concoct an even more ludicrous framework to describe Santorum's appeal: He's a compassionate conservative.
But perhaps the most surprising result of the Iowa caucuses was the return of compassionate conservatism from the margins of the Republican stage to its center. Rick Santorum is not just an outspoken social conservative; he is the Republican candidate who addresses the struggles of blue-collar workers and the need for greater economic mobility. He talks not only of the rights of the individual but also of the health of social institutions, particularly the family. He draws out the public consequences of a belief in human dignity—a pro-life view applied to the unborn and to victims of AIDS in Africa.
Santorum does speak to the hardships faced by the working poor in a way that most members of the current Republican Party can't (living emblem of the 1 percent, Mitt Romney, seems particularly insincere on this point). Santorum's tax-reform proposals would in fact benefit the rich with little assistance for blue-collar workers, but perhaps rhetorical flourishes are all that it takes to become a kindhearted conservative.
Santorum's compassion only goes so far; if you're not a straight white male, then you're out of luck. His opposition to same-sex unions is as strong as ever—as recently as October he said that contraceptives are not okay because "it’s a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be." In case that wasn't enough, he also dabbled in a bit of race-baiting this week. "I don't want to make black people's lives better by giving them somebody else's money," he said on the eve of his Iowa caucus near-victory. If that's compassion, I'd hate to see the cruel conservative candidate.
Santorum's desire to return America to the era of "Father Knows Best" would also ruin him in a general election. The attention devoted to the new job numbers today shows that the state of the economy will dictate who wins; social issues will take a back seat.
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