Over at Commentary’s “Contentions” blog, Jonathan Tobin is wondering aloud whether Rick Santorum’s refusal to go quietly into that good night is tied to an ambition to run for president again in 2016 should Mitt Romney falter down the stretch. Here’s Tobin, imagining (though not endorsing, mind you) how such a scenario plays out:
Though it is hard to imagine Santorum becoming polished or organized enough to bridge the gap between being a feisty challenger and a nominee, it must be conceded that in January his name will be prominently mentioned when possible Republican candidates for 2016 are listed. And while his extreme positions on social issues will always be a barrier to winning a general election, should the GOP find itself in opposition next year, those who argued that a more centrist approach was needed in 2012 are not likely to find much of an audience among Republicans.
I have a very hard time seeing how Santorum makes this work. The reflexive analysis is probably to note the long history of the GOP privileging the candidate “next in line,” the one who has already paid his dues on his way to the top of the party hierarchy. And over the past 50 years this has indeed been the Republican Party’s default setting, with Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, John McCain, and now (most likely) Mitt Romney all becoming nominees as a result (Ford is an admittedly different case, but a serious argument can be made that he would not have been the nominee in 1976 without his incumbent status, even if it wasn’t attained via popular election). My old boss, George W. Bush, is the exception that proves the rule. While he hadn’t run for national office prior to 2000, being the eldest son of the most institutionally significant family in the Republican Party hardly qualifies one as an outsider.
Some of the early speculation downplaying Romney’s chances for 2012 emphasized that this trend is not a natural law and that the changing ideological complexion of the party could present barriers significant enough to deny him the nomination. That prediction seems to have been half-true. Indeed, there has been greater resistance to Romney than probably would have been the case in any recent election cycle. That resistance was, in fact, probably large enough to deny Romney the nomination, but only if the conservative opposition was able to settle on a plausible alternative candidate. With a Romney nomination now looking all but inevitable, that project obviously failed.
Therein lies the rub for Santorum. The surge in support he has enjoyed since just before the Iowa Caucuses seems to owe much more to his status as the last-man standing – the sole survivor after the implosions of Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich – than any of his inherent virtues (remember that his support was margin-of-error thin as late as December). As much as the rationale of Mitt Romney’s campaign has been that he’s not Barack Obama, the rationale behind Santorum’s campaign has been that he’s not Mitt Romney. Assuming a Romney loss, where does that leave Santorum in 2016, amidst a crop of new candidates and with Romney presumably no longer on the ballot?
Like many conservatives, I’ve discovered virtues in Santorum during this cycle that I previously didn’t know existed (Mike Huckabee is his only rival at the national level for persuasively appealing to blue collar voters, for example). But I’ve also noted that some of his long-standing liabilities (particularly a lack of message discipline that makes him a ripe target for the media) have yet to diminish. In a wide-open 2016 field (where the GOP has a notably deep bench), it’s doubtful that the former traits will outweigh the latter so decisively as to make him a serious candidate for the nomination.
The electoral winds are fickle, of course, and four years is practically geologic time in American politics. Still, the facts at hand would caution Senator Santorum against preparing an acceptance speech anytime soon.