Rick Santorum got a huge lift Saturday when a gathering of 150 prominent religious conservatives in Brenham, Texas, designated him as their consensus choice. It is noteworthy that Gary Bauer, among the most prominent of the social conservatives, had endorsed Santorum and was in attendance at the meeting. Coming a week before the South Carolina primary and just as Newt Gingrich has drawn the ire of conservatives for his anti-Bain attacks, the vote may have come in the nick of time. (One wonders what would have happened if the religious leaders had picked Santorum before the New Hampshire primary.)
Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council and a spokesman for the group of 150 activists, said that a “strong consensus” emerged for the former Pennsylvania senator after a three-ballot process.
Perkins said that Santorum got more than two-thirds support from the activists in the final ballot, in which he faced off against former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Gov. Rick Perry of Texas also received considerable support from the group, Perkins added.
“I think it was vigorous discussion of who they felt best represented the conservative movement and who they think had the best chance of succeeding,” said Perkins, adding that he was surprised that the group was able to coalesce around one candidate.
In South Carolina Santorum has been stuck in a scrum of not-Romney candidates in a state in which he needs not to win but to distinguish himself as the only reasonable alternative to Mitt Romney. But he hadn’t yet shaken off Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) or Newt Gingrich. Meanwhile, Texas Gov. Rick Perry chugs along, taking about 10 percent of the voters, who are precisely the type of conservatives whom Santorum needs in his camp.
If evangelical voters in South Carolina, Florida and elsewhere follow the pastors’ lead, he could get the needed boost, even if Gingrich and Perry remain in the race, although the pressure will become intense on them to get out.
Gingrich’s press flak responded with ungraciousness typical of Gingrich, sending out a statement spinning this as a win for him and Santorum. I emailed RC Hammond and asked if Santorum hadn’t won flat out, and if Gingrich wasn’t now blocking the path of Santorum, the consensus pick of evangelical community He emailed: “Even with your Math skills you can figure out Mitt Romney received ZERO support from the group.” You can see how obsessed the campaign is with knocking down Romney, rather than actually winning. By remaining in the race and by creating such a backlash against the anti-Bain ads, he’s now helping Romney. A bigger man, more concerned with the conservative movement would recognize that and act accordingly.
Last week Santorum was striving to tamp down on questions about electability, a task made more difficult because Gingrich’s anti-Bain meltdown has entirely absorbed media attention. With the social conservatives behind him, he now needs to work doggedly on refining his message. If he is not going to be the Mike Huckabee of 2012, he’ll need to amplify his message, which is as much economic as it is social.
In a Wall Street Journal interview we get a more distilled version of what ordinary voters hear in long Q & A sessions on the campaign trail or following media coverage of Santorum. The title of the piece “Supply-sider for the working man” isn’t exactly campaign-appropriate, but it tells you in a glance what he’s about. (“Conservative for all the people,” would be more primary-appropriate, I suppose.)
His message isn’t standard-issue conservatism, so it takes a fair amount of explanation. And hence the problem of getting lost in the weeds. Here’s the justification for the corporate tax plan:
“[President Obama] talking about handing out tax-free grants and loans,” says Mr. Santorum, who adds that his own plan “is a conservative approach. It’s supply-side. It’s cutting rates. Why are we cutting the corporate rate to 17.5% and making it simple? . . . Because we think it’s what’s necessary to grow the economy. . . . So if what’s necessary to grow the economy in one sector of the economy is different from another, then why should we have the same tax rate?” He argues that manufacturing has been hit particularly hard by the costs of regulation and litigation.
To avoid a lobbying festival, Mr. Santorum says, the existing IRS definition of manufacturing, which includes companies that make and process goods, will remain in place.
“No, we’re not going to have a free-for-all over who is a manufacturer. It’s pretty clear if you’re making products you’re making products and if you’re processing products like if you’re an oil refiner, you’re a processor. . . . You’re making things, as opposed to a lawyer who is not a manufacturer.” And while only a small percentage of Americans still work in manufacturing, Mr. Santorum says that such businesses have a powerful “multiplier effect” as they support various other enterprises.
Got all that? And if he explained the multiplier effect it would be a few more paragraphs.
His explanation for tripling the child tax credit and lowering individual rates is equally intricate:
Mr. Santorum argues that the cost of Europe’s massive welfare states made it too expensive for young people to have families. He notes that with plummeting birth rates, many European countries have resorted to “baby bonuses” to try to reverse the tide, but the demographic picture remains bleak, while the costs of entitlement programs have exploded.
“Who are benefits promised to, overwhelmingly? Well, they’re promised to older people. And if you have a society like Europe that is upside down where there are a lot more older people than younger people, you have economic calamity,” he says. Asked if giving generous per-child credits will result in an even larger number of households exempt from the income tax and therefore amenable to more spending, he says his plan will drive growth and that, in turn, will bring more people on to the tax rolls. Elimination of deductions might also keep some people paying income taxes. He aims to balance overall taxes and spending at 18% of GDP. Spending has soared to 24% in the Obama era.
Almost plaintively the interviewer asks if it “wouldn’t it be better for growth to just have a flat tax with a large household exemption.” (Santorum says that would be a budget buster.) In other words, is there a way to get from here to there (help for middle-income Americans) that people can get their arms around?
I’m not suggesting Santorum’s idea — conservatism for the masses — is wrong. To the contrary, it’s the brand of optimistic, populist conservatism that gives ordinary voters the idea that Republicans aren’t simply for rich people, business owners and think-tankers. It’s certainly a way to make conservatism attractive for lower- and middle-income voters who have populist skepticism of both big government and big business.
But Santorum needs to cut to the chase and boil down his message. It’s not Iowa, and he doesn’t have months to talk to all the voters in South Carolina, let alone Florida.
In ads, debates and interviews he’d do well to take a page from Mitt Romney’s book. Romney likes to tick off “the seven things “ (or is it five?) he’s going to do to get the economy moving. For Santorum it’s the seven things he’s going to do for middle-income Americans. Herman Cain may have understood nothing about public policy, but he understood marketing. (9-9-9!)
Moreover, Santorum’s ads don’t match his appeal. His ads tend to portray him in business casual, often in an idyllic suburban home with well-groomed children. But his appeal, as he argued in the interview, is to blue-collar workers and stressed Rust Belt Americans. If, as the Journal contends, his message is built around “blue-collar biography and a tax plan built for the industrial heartland” he needs to get off the lawn in those ads and into factories, mines and small businesses and talk about his roots. Jeans, not khakis. And just like we all knew that Rep. Richard Gephardt’s dad was a milk truck driver, every voter should know about Santorum’s immigrant grandparents.
I can hear the complaints. Too gimmicky. Not giving voter enough credit. Actually, you have to make it easier for voters to understand where you are coming from. Right now it takes a lot of work to figure out where Santorum is coming from. And 99.9 percent of the voters aren’t going to read a Wall Street Journal interview to figure it out.
If you think small things don’t matter, consider that more voters probably know about his sweater vests than his tax plan. The sleeveless -vest look is not the official politician uniform, and it conveys some informality (e.g., what your neighbor would wear if you invited him over for dinner). It makes him look different.
All of this is easy to say from afar. An it may be that there is some more fundamental objection to Santorum. But if Santorum believes what he says — South Carolina is not do-or-die and he’s in for the long haul — there’s plenty of time to help the voters understand what he’s all about. With a boost from the pastors all the pieces may be falling into place.