Santorum: Weird extremism, or shrewd politics?


It’s true that Santorum’s criticism of Kennedy’s speech echoes views common on the Catholic right. (For one of the very best and most thoughtful discussions of JFK’s speech, check out the transcript of this excellent event at Fordham University’s Center on Religion and Culture.)

But Santorum’s rather disgusting “throw up” line was, to say the least, very un-presidential. And if Santorum is seeking votes in Michigan today from older Catholic Reagan Democrats — and Catholics who converted to the GOP in the Gipper’s time — attacking the nation’s first and only Catholic president seemed very unwise. Many of these voters were once John F. Kennedy Democrats.

 The snob comment reflects a kind of snobbery itself. Most working-class voters I know want their children to go to college because they want them to have broader opportunities — and, yes, broader knowledge. It’s the worst form of elitism to assume that working-class voters disdain learning and higher education.

 But here’s the political question of the day: Will Santorum’s over-the-top comments, added to all his other socially conservative pronouncements, create a wave of enthusiasm for him, particularly in the very religious precincts in western Michigan? In that case, is Santorum shrewder than most of the commentariat thinks?

 Nobody really knows who is going to vote in Michigan today. The conventional view, which I lean toward, is that Romney’s television ads attacking Santorum, combined with Santorum’s extreme statements, will push enough Republican voters Romney’s way to give the son of Michigan’s late governor a victory tonight. If Romney does win, pay attention to the gender gap. A Romney victory would be built on the votes of women.

 The alternative view, which has gained ground among political analysts over the past 24 to 36 hours, is that the energy in the state as the polls opened was with Santorum. This new momentum, combined with some cross-over Democratic voters who want to give Romney trouble, could be enough to give Santorum a victory — and throw the Republican race into chaos.

 My slight lean toward a Romney win reflects an assumption that he has enough early votes in the bank to eke out what he needs. But if Santorum triumphs, all of us in the pundit class will have to re-examine our assumptions about what counts as “extreme” among Republican voters these days. And Republicans who already have doubts about Romney will have their anxieties confirmed: If Romney can’t beat Santorum after all the astounding things Santorum has said over the past week, the off-and-on front-runner is a weaker candidate than even his critics suspected. That’s why to survive, Romney simply has to win Michigan tonight.       

       

E.J. Dionne writes about politics in a twice-weekly column and on the PostPartisan blog. He is also a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, a government professor at Georgetown University and a frequent commentator on politics for National Public Radio, ABC’s “This Week” and NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

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