The narrowness of Mitt Romney’s victory over Rick Santorum in Romney’s home state of Michigan ensures that the ever more scathing struggle for the Republican nomination is far from resolved.
In 2010 the Tea Party established that it owned a chokehold on the Republican nominating process by way of its outsized representation as participants in the party’s primaries. In this it has followed the game plan of the religious right of the early nineties, which developed litmus tests for candidates around such issues as gay rights and abortion, making sure candidates who ran afoul of their views would not survive Republican primary battles. Even the Republican establishment used the threat of funding primary opposition to strong-arm House members to vote as they wished — for example, during the Clinton impeachment.
From its inception, there has been a tension inside the Tea Party between its social-conservative wing and its free-market economics wing. In its essence, the social conservative wing wishes in the name of “family values” to roll back what they see as the revolution in morals that began in the 1960s and has become institutionalized since. The libertarian wing wishes to double down on typical Republican economics, seeking to reduce taxes to a bare minimum, abolish the welfare state and shed government regulation of business.
The struggle between Romney and Santorum represents a struggle between these two wings of the Tea Party. Michigan was a draw. For the Republican Party as a whole, Romney’s inability to put Santorum away is a cause for extreme worry. Outside the South, a social conservative a la Santorum could almost certainly never win an election for national office.
Santorum’s rise as the family-values candidate has been aided by how the apparent improvement in economic conditions over the past months has undermined the core of Romney’s candidacy. Romney has been explicit that his qualification for president rests almost exclusively on his experience and competence as a business manager. Ironically, Romney has now inherited a political dilemma that dogged President Obama for most of his term in office. Obama was stuck with an impossibly hard counterfactual sell on his economic policies: in effect, no we haven’t recovered, but the downturn would have been much worse without my policies. Romney is now arguing the feeble inverse: in effect, yes, the economy is getting better, but it would have improved a lot faster if we had followed my policies.
In 2010 the triumphs of the Tea Party (electing a few Senators and about 50 members of the House affiliated with the Tea Party) were a reflection of the panic induced by the near-depression-level economic crash of 2008. That panic seized upon the Obama administration’s inability to turn the crash around through stimulus spending, and its attempts at the same time to usher in vast innovations like health-insurance reform and cap and trade.
The Republican establishment, such as it is these days, wanted to run the presidential campaign on the issues of 2010. In his response to President Obama’s State of the Union Address, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels focused on the slowness of the economic recovery (Obama merely made things worse), the rising national debt (“just behind Greece and Spain”), entitlements and big government. With these issues less cutting these days (though gas prices will be tried on as a surrogate) the social conservative side of the Republican primary electorate has been — to use today’s trendy term — energized.
Imagine going to the general election with a candidate opposed to contraception, as Santorum has made clear in the past week, and you can imagine the Republican dilemma. And imagine having a front runner so weak he can’t put the anti-contraception candidate away. It’s enough to make you — to use another recent Santorumism, about the separation of church and state — want to throw up.