Is Rick Santorum too angry to be elected president?
Some conservative pundits worry that Rick Santorum has not yet shown the ability to be the sort of optimistic unifier – à la Ronald Reagan – that general-election voters tend to prefer.
We ask this question because it draws together some criticisms of the ex-Pennsylvania senator that have been pinging around the conservative blogosphere in recent days.
It’s a political truism that Americans like their presidential candidates, and their presidents, to be optimistic, even sunny. Think Ronald Reagan, or Bill Clinton when he wasn’t answering questions dealing with impeachment.
But in recent weeks, as he talks about his beliefs on issues from economics to the needs of families, this is not always how Mr. Santorum has come across. In recent days Santorum and his aides have been grumbling that Mitt Romney and Ron Paul conspired against him in Wednesday’s CNN debate, for instance.
“Santorum already has a reputation for being thin-skinned and peevish,” wrote conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin today on her Right Turn blog in The Washington Post. “This tactic certainly [makes] him seem like a poor sport.”
Of course, the GOP race as a whole has not been distinguished by its cheerfulness. That’s what former Florida Governor and brother-of-W Jeb Bush was getting at Thursday night when he said he finds it “troubling” that the Republican candidates are “appealing to people’s fears and emotions.”
According to an account on Fox News, answering questions following a speech in Dallas, Jeb Bush said “I used to be a conservative, and I watch these debates and I’m wondering, I don’t think I’ve changed, but it’s a little troubling sometimes when people are appealing to people’s fears and emotion rather than trying to get them to look over the horizon for a broader perspective.... I think it changes when we get to the general election. I hope.”
Plus, many Republicans feel strongly about ousting President Obama, and are responding to rhetoric that they consider rousing. Thus in his speech to the Maricopa County Lincoln Day lunch last week, Santorum ended with the tough words, “It is your honor at stake. Will you be the generation that lets the flame go out? Will you be the generation that succumbs to the siren song that government can do for you" what you can do for yourself?
Maricopa County Republicans gave Santorum a standing ovation for this call. But as Kimberly Strassel writes today in her column for The Wall Street Journal editorial page, US presidential elections are not won by political party bases. They are won at the margins of the electorate, by winning over swing voters. And right now, those margins are not thrilled about the seeming willingness of social conservatives to impose their views of morality on the nation.
This is “a trend that Mr. Santorum would seem to highlight,” writes Ms. Strassel in her piece, which is headlined “Moralizer in Chief?”
Santorum is a man of evident deep faith who speaks often of the need to revitalize religious institutions and families. Yet he’s also “left many Americans with the impression that he believes it is his job as president to revitalize these institutions,” according to Strassel, who adds that Santorum needs to find “a less judgmental way of discussing social issues.”
That said, not everyone agrees Santorum seems more of a scold than others in the GOP field. At an American Enterprise Institute political seminar on Tuesday, AEI scholar Henry Olsen said, “Santorum, despite his lapses into moralism, is somebody who presents a sunnier personality than Newt Gingrich, a more consistent personality than Newt Gingrich, is somebody who is clearly intelligent and conversant with the issues, unlike Gov. Rick Perry, and is somebody who is not prone to demagogic bombast as are some of the other candidates.”