Matt Lewis

The case for Santorum: 5 reasons Obama should ‘Fear the Vest’

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Matt K. Lewis
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      Matt K. Lewis

      Matt K. Lewis is a senior contributor to The Daily Caller, and a contributing editor for The Week. He is a respected commentator on politics and cultural issues, and has been cited by major publications such as The Washington Post and The New York Times. Matt is from Myersville, MD and currently resides in Alexandria, VA. Follow Matt K. Lewis on Twitter <a>@mattklewis</a>.

Barack Obama and his team have spent months assuming Mitt Romney will be their opponent. But while Romney is still the favorite to win the GOP nomination, the surging Rick Santorum might be a much tougher opponent to defeat.

This is true for a variety of important reasons — many of which overlap:

1. Blue collar appeal. With the economy struggling, President Obama is clearly preparing to paint former Bain Capital executive Mitt Romney as part of the 1 percent — as “Gordon Gekko” — so to speak. Class warfare might be the sharpest arrow in the Obama quiver, but it would be much harder to use on Santorum. As David Brooks recently noted,

“Santorum is the grandson of a coal miner and the son of an Italian immigrant. For years, he represented the steel towns of western Pennsylvania. He has spent the last year scorned by the news media — working relentlessly, riding around in a pickup truck to more than 370 towns. He tells that story of hard work and elite disrespect with great fervor at his meetings.”

Of course, Santorum’s populist appeal transcends his family background. It manifests itself in his policy decisions, and dovetails the compassionate tenets of his faith. As Brooks also noted, in the U.S. Senate, Santorum “was a leader in nearly every serious piece of antipoverty legislation.”

2. Swing states. We don’t have a popular election; electoral votes are what counts. And some of the most important swing states – Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, etc. — just happen be states where Santorum’s blue collar, populist message would likely resonate (these states also tend to have a disproportionately large Catholic population). Having a messenger who can appeal to the blue collar, “lunch pail” workers in the “rust belt” would seem to be a smart move for the GOP.

Note: Santorum is deservedly criticized for losing his 2006 re-election in Pennsylvania. But George W. Bush tried hard twice to win Pennsylvania, and fell short both times. Santorum won the state in 2000 (when Bush lost). Santorum, at least, puts the state in play.

(And don’t forget, Santorum obviously did well in the Iowa caucuses — another swing state.)

3. The Catholic vote. Since Ronald Reagan gave Republicans a new rubric called, “Reagan Democrats,” it has been Catholics — who make up nearly a fourth of the population — who have emerged as the most important “swing” vote in presidential politics. They also vote in disproportionately high numbers.

“Catholics don’t vote tribally,” says Josh Mercer of CatholicVote.org, “but it does help to have somebody who can speak and talk Catholic values.” Santorum, of course, is a practicing Catholic — and he frequently talks values. This is not to say Santorum could take the bloc for granted (John Kerry lost the Catholic vote to George W. Bush) — or that he’s the only Republican who could deliver (Mitt Romney won the Catholic enclave of Dubuque, Iowa, and Newt Gingrich is a convert to the faith.) But President Obama is already in danger of losing the Catholic vote, and it seems very likely that Rick Santorum would win the Catholic vote in 2012, which — recent history seems to indicate — would make him president.

4. Values voters. In the post-Bush era, there has been a backlash against so-called “compassionate conservatism.” While conservatives were correct to repudiate the big-spending days of the 2000′s, traditional conservatives haven’t suddenly become selfish Ayn Randians, either. James Pethokoukis picked up on this recently, comparing Santorum’s Burkean philosophy to Mitt Romney’s more Hayekian economic stance. He writes that Santorum

isn’t satisfied with an economy that’s more efficient and competitive if it doesn’t result in stronger families. As it says on his campaign website: “Rick Santorum believes that to have a strong national economy, we must have strong families.” The family is at the center of Santorum’s economic vision. GDP growth is a means, not an end.

Santorum’s focus on cultural issues — in an era when they have been downplayed by many Republicans — has made him a very appealing candidate to Evangelicals.

(Note: If Santorum does become the nominee, expect liberals to trot out examples of the extreme positions he has staked out in the past. They will call him a “homophobe” — and worse. Santorum does well when talking about compassion for the poor and defending the right to life, but cultural conservatism can be a double-edged sword.)

5. He’s eloquent and intelligent. It has become evident that debate skills are important. Knowledge is important. The ability to communicate effectively is important. Some candidates — for example Gov. Rick Perry — struggled greatly in this area. Santorum seems to be knowledgeable of the issues, and capable of communicating his positions effectively. What is more, he seems to be the only candidate who can bring together grassroots conservatives and urban “cosmopolitan conservatives.” As the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin wrote, Santorum “is a well-educated man who cites (without pretense) everyone from John Adams to C.S. Lewis. He’s someone who thinks it important to know things — and know them in detail if you’re going to run for the presidency.”

Sometimes Santorum comes across as haughty or even angry. If he hopes to win, he will have to avoid showing his “Bad Rick” side. But Santorum may also be uniquely situated to appeal to a broad coalition of conservative voters and leaders. He has the potential to win the votes of the “lunch pail” worker in Ohio (in a way Romney probably can’t), and garner the accolades of the conservative intelligentsia in Washington and New York — and the votes of some urbanites (which Perry probably couldn’t).

Might Team Obama be growing worried about this? A campaign email that came out last night mentioned Santorum for the first time that I’ve seen. It read: “For months, Senate Republicans — with Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum right behind them — have fought this [Financial Protection] bureau every step of the way, and their latest strategy is to refuse to allow even an up-or-down vote on this nomination.”

Obama might already fear the vest.