Sanctimonious Santorum — Obama’s best bet for re-election

In 1964, as a newly-minted undergraduate with more enthusiasm than sense, I joined the quixotic effort to elect conservative Republican Barry Goldwater President of the United States.

Four years later, with less enthusiasm — too much had happened  — but with determination, I worked to push Eugene McCarthy (no relation to Tail Gunner Joe) to the Democratic nomination.

And in 1972, with the promise of LBJ’s Great Society horribly diminished by unending war in Vietnam, from the safety of the Great White North I hoped against hope for the triumph of George McGovern over Richard Nixon, whose personal letter (“Greetings from the President of the United States: You are ordered to report for induction to …”) started the sequence of events that led me north.

What do these forty going on fifty year old political campaigns have to do with today’s subject?

In all three cases, the candidate I favoured was the purest of the pure, the most ardent exemplar of his party’s political philosophy. And in all three cases, it was that purity that doomed these candidates to inglorious and decisive failure.

In 2012, Rick Santorum is the purest of the pure, campaigning to bring the U. S. “back” to the Christian nation it was always meant to be. His positions on “values” issues are closer to those in the Book of Leviticus than to those in the Constitution. That makes him the darling of the Republican base, but the most unelectable candidate since, well, Goldwater, McCarthy, and McGovern.

The 1968 McCarthy campaign, a grass-roots effort by a man of conscience to defeat Vice President Hubert Humphrey, an opponent who had the full support of the party’s bosses and money men, has direct relevance to the Republican primary process in 2012.

When McCarthy’s anti-war campaign gained enough ground to cast Humphrey’s nomination into doubt, the ever-opportunistic Robert Kennedy jumped into the race. By splitting the anti-war vote in two, Kennedy helped Humphrey win some three-way primaries that he might have lost in a heads-up battle against McCarthy. Who knows what might have happened at the convention — in those days, conventions were real contests — if Kennedy had survived his victory in California. It’s quite possible that McCarthy might have thrown his support to Kennedy on a second or third ballot, denying Humphrey the nomination and probably denying Nixon the White House.

Kennedy’s late entry blunted McCarthy’s campaign, denying it much of the media spotlight that turned to Kennedy. And after Kennedy’s death, that part of his support that was more pro-Camelot than anti-war went not to McCarthy but to Humphrey. In the end, Humphrey won the nomination. He might well have won in any case, but we’ll never know. What we do know is that he took a bruising in the nomination battle, in which both McCarthy and Kennedy successfully associated Humphrey with Johnson’s hated war (ironic, since Humphrey was one of the war’s harshest critics within the administration). When Nixon famously claimed “I have a plan” to end the war in Vietnam, he was able to outflank his opponent from the right with a campaign promise from the left. Even with all of these advantages, Nixon’s victory over Humphrey was a narrow one. Only a few votes per precinct would have changed American and world history in unknown but certainly profound ways. Thanks to the third-party campaign of George Wallace, who won five states, Humphrey almost overcame his many deficits, losing the popular vote by a fraction of a percent.

The parallels to today’s Republican nomination battle are obvious. Mitt Romney, backed by the party establishment and the big money boys, is the insider’s choice. But his fight against a series of lesser rivals has weakened him. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have tarred him with enough sticky stuff to make it likely that, if he does emerge with the nomination, he will enter the general election campaign with so many wounds that Barack Obama, who trailed Romney in the national polls only a few months ago, seems destined to win a largely-unearned second term.

The two old general campaigns, 1964 and 1972, become relevant in the unlikely but for now at least plausible event of Rick Santorum’s becoming the Republican nominee. In both earlier cases, a candidate who was the darling of his party’s base won the nomination, only to be crushed by his opponent. You can win a nomination by running from the edge of your party, but you can’t win a general election from there.

In 1964, the Johnson campaign feasted on Goldwater’s public image as a dangerous and extreme conservative. The justly famous “Daisy Girl” ad was the most obvious example, but it didn’t help Goldwater when his own campaign came up with the slogan, “In your heart, you know he’s right.” Yes, too far right! Johnson won the popular vote with 62% and trounced Goldwater in the electoral college.

In the greatest Electoral College sweep to that point in American history, in 1972 Richard Nixon was re-elected with 61% of the vote. George McGovern won only the District of Columbia, which has never voted Republican, and Massachusetts. Final electoral count — Nixon 520, McGovern 17. (The missing, final electoral vote was cast by a Nixon elector for a California libertarian.)

These two elections between a sitting president and a challenger from the outer edges of his party produced the largest popular vote margins in American history. This year, a sitting president may have the good fortune to run against another outer-edge challenger. Obama doesn’t have the political gifts of either Johnson or Nixon, and no one expects him to win re-election by 25 points. Yet a Santorum candidacy would almost certainly mean a comfortable Obama victory. You can’t win a general election from the margin.

(If anyone is wondering why I’m ignoring Ronald Reagan’s 1984 demolishing of Walter Mondale, Reagan was a widely-popular incumbent, something that Barack Obama is not, so there isn’t sufficient similarity to make the two campaigns comparable.)

It seems that in 2012 we have two likely scenarios.

One, in the manner of 1968, has a badly-damaged Mitt Romney limping into the general election against an unsullied Barack Obama. With his own  party lukewarm in their support for him, Romney looks like a loser.

Two, like 1964 and 1972, a Santorum nomination lets Obama campaign comfortably from the middle, while bludgeoning his opponent as a dangerous ideologue, a president who would hold his religious convictions higher than his responsibility to govern the whole nation. Santorum, too, would lose, and likely by a considerable margin.

The third scenario, the wild card, which is what the late entry of Robert Kennedy into the 1968 campaign would have been had he lived, was touted not long ago by a number of top Republicans, who made a public plea for a credible new candidate (New Jersey’s governor Chris Christie, for example) to enter the race and lead them on to victory in November. It’s pretty certain now that this won’t happen in 2012.

So Barack Obama, weak and unimpressive as he has been for most of  his term, looks poised to benefit from one of a pair of scenarios that both promise to make his re-election perhaps not certain, but surely much easier.

After all, he may not be much, but he’s better than the alternative.

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One thought on “Sanctimonious Santorum — Obama’s best bet for re-election

  1. Which is the same comment as might be made about the democratic electoral process, but it does make the operation of a democratic society appear precarious and raise the question about whether improvement is possible.

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