Santorum Coulda Been the Right’s Contender in ’08

Posted March 16, 2007 at 4:03pm

Hindsight, former President George H.W. Bush famously remarked, is 90-90. So it is easy for consultants and pundits to sit back with the wisdom of hindsight and chortle at the blunders of elected officials. But this much is certain: former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) really blew it. If he had played his cards differently, he’d be a leading — if not the leading — candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008.

Imagine, if you will, that Santorum had announced two years ago that because of his strong support for term limits and opposition to a Congress of “career politicians,” he was going to retire from the Senate when his second term expired in 2006. Today, he’d be unencumbered by the time requirements of being a Senator and able to spend his full time campaigning for the Republican nomination. Out of Washington, D.C., he no longer would have to cast any awkward votes — he’d even be able to claim that he was kind of an outsider. He would have left office on his own terms with an unblemished electoral track record, having won four elections (two for the House and two for the Senate) in challenging circumstances. And he’d be able to boast as much experience in Congress as the three Democratic frontrunners (New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards) combined.

But Santorum’s biggest asset would be his unswervingly conservative voting record. While social conservatives have disparaged former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for past statements in support of abortion rights and gay rights, they’ve cheered Santorum for his activism on anti-abortion causes and his infamous remarks that legalizing homosexual sex would be tantamount to legalizing “man-on-dog” sex. While economic conservatives have lambasted Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) for opposing some of the Bush tax cuts, they’ve lauded Santorum for shepherding those same tax cuts through the Senate. And Santorum undoubtedly would be a favorite of foreign policy conservatives for his bellicose speeches about the threat posed by, in his words, “Islamic fascism.”

But instead of retiring, Santorum chose to run for re-election and was humiliated, beaten by a larger margin than any incumbent Senator in decades. He spent $26 million — more money than any Senate candidate in Pennsylvania history — yet he managed only 41 percent of the vote in a state that hadn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate in a regular election since 1962. He’s tainted now with the stench of losing. As political analyst Larry Sabato noted in The Philadelphia Inquirer, “Losing in a landslide ‘is hardly a recommendation to your political party to nominate you. … Adding him to a Republican ticket in either spot would guarantee a loss in Pennsylvania.’”

Santorum’s political castration has implications not just for himself, but the entire conservative movement, which is without a favorite candidate to succeed George W. Bush. The Washington Post recently quoted the chairman of the American Conservative Union admitting that conservative leaders “are all pretty much agreed that there is no clear conservative choice, or even an unclear conservative choice.” These leaders have hesitated to embrace the most conservative candidates such as Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee out of skepticism that they can win the Republican nomination. But Santorum would have been a credible candidate to win the nomination from the first day he entered the field because of his proven fundraising prowess, his ability to be elected to the Senate Republican leadership and his representation of the sixth most populous state in the Union.

Santorum’s involuntary retirement from the Senate does have one upside for him: His income will be much higher as a result of his recent agreement to appear as a pundit on Fox News and his plans to “join a Washington law firm” (read: become a lobbyist). He may even make more than $400,000 — the salary of the next president of the United States.

J.J. Balaban is a political consultant with The Campaign Group, a Democratic media consulting firm based in Philadelphia.