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If Santorum finishes second, watch out

By Matt Welch, Special to CNN
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Wed March 14, 2012
Rick Santorum scored victories in Alabama and Mississippi but still trails in delegates.
Rick Santorum scored victories in Alabama and Mississippi but still trails in delegates.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Matt Welch: Santorum still faces tough odds, is likely to wind up in second place
  • He says second place GOP finishes tend to get the nomination later
  • Welch: Santorum's social conservatism would take the party in the wrong direction
  • GOP should have a candidate who can fix nation's serious debt problem, he says

Editor's note: Matt Welch is editor in chief of Reason and co-author of "The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong with America" (PublicAffairs).

(CNN) -- Question: What do Mitt Romney, John McCain, Bob Dole, George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan (twice!) have in common? Answer: Before winning the Republican Party's nomination to run for president, each of these men first finished in second place during a GOP primary season.

Though it is by no means a lock that the Republican silver medalist will emerge as the party's front-runner in 2016 (just ask Pat Buchanan and Nelson Rockefeller), a significant second-place finish, the likes of which we will certainly see this year (unlike, say, John Buchanan's showing in 2004), carries the weight of a planted flag: Here, even in defeat, lies the embodiment of an important if temporarily unsuccessful political strain, one that is ready to break back out around that candidate at the next available opportunity.

Rick Santorum had a good day Tuesday, but he needs great days from here on out, in less-geographically friendly states, to have any prayer at the GOP nomination. As CNN reported, "Because Alabama's 47 delegates and Mississippi's 37 delegates will be awarded proportionally, Romney appeared to maintain his delegate lead and may add to it after more moderate Hawaii's 17 delegates are distributed. A CNN delegate estimate early Wednesday showed Romney with a 489-234 lead over Santorum, giving him a 255-delegate margin."

Matt Welch
Matt Welch

Romney is a tall, attractive Massachusetts striver running almost solely on electability -- as opposed to policy vision or connection with voters -- at a time when the sitting president seems over his head and beatable. If that formulation feels familiar, it is. John Kerry rode it to a surprisingly easy Democratic nomination in 2004, before getting his hat handed to him by President George W. Bush.

Political parties that hold their noses and go for the guy who seems most presentable tend to swing hard in the other direction when the stiff doesn't deliver. Gerald Ford's lackluster Chamber-of-Commerce Republican showing against the out-of-nowhere Democrat Jimmy Carter poured lighter fluid on the more radical Reagan Revolution.

Kerry's almost dutiful drubbing, meanwhile, activated two restive strains within the Democratic Party -- the anti-war anger that had clustered around third-place finisher Howard Dean, and the firmly anti-Clintonian economic populism of runner-up John Edwards. The left's national center of gravity, so long anchored in Democratic Leadership Council-style notions of free trade, fiscal sobriety, and even rhetorical tackling of entitlement spending, lurched significantly back to its pre-Reagan fondness for government taking a robust lead role in just about everything.

The 2008 Democratic National Convention proved to be the public funeral for a "third-way" Democratic politics that had produced Bill Clinton, Al Gore (the 1.0 version), Joe Lieberman, and John Kerry. Even Hillary Clinton during the convention bashed the economic policies that her husband had championed, even while basking in the credit of the results they achieved. The 2004 losers helped dictate and predict what the 2008 winner would do once in office.

So the question about Rick Santorum shouldn't necessarily be "Can he win this year?" but "What strain of Republicanism does he represent; will it gain the intra-party upper hand should Romney lose to Obama, and what does that tell us about the modern GOP?"

From my perspective as a small-"l" libertarian and political independent, the answers to these question are grim.

Rick Santorum represents the type of Republican who considers it a pressing national issue in 2012 to persuade Americans that our godless and secular Constitution is actually imbued with a "moral code" and sense of responsibility emanating from God. "Our country never was a libertarian idea of radical individualism," he says, often. "We have certain values and principles that are embodied in our country. We have God-given rights."

Santorum is your go-to Republican if you think the U.S. should bomb Iranian nuclear sites and instigate regime change in Tehran; if you think we didn't intervene in Libya soon enough and need to get working on Syria; if you think jihad is coming from South America and that the problem with the 50-year-old embargo on Cuba is that it just isn't strong enough.

Santorum is your man if you think social conservatives need to play more offense instead of just defense in the culture wars, proactively using the federal government to buck up traditional families and re-moralize a country that has strayed from the path.

In short, Santorum is George W. Bush without the taste for immigration reform and the pre-9/11 preference for a "humble" foreign policy. More compassionate conservatism at home, more neo-conservatism abroad.

If Romney is the tabula rasa Republican, representing nothing and everything in a bid to get elected by any means necessary, Santorum after Tuesday has cemented his place as the GOP's ideas-and-values man. It's his vision--as opposed to the principled limited-government stance of a Ron Paul--that will have pole position if and when Romney loses to Obama.

At a time when the country is heading over a fiscal cliff, it is nothing short of astonishing that the GOP cannot manage to rally around a candidate actually talking about, let alone forthrightly addressing, the signature challenge of our time. A party that takes Rick Santorum seriously is not a party serious enough to govern. Sadly, neither are the Democrats.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Matt Welch.

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