I’m not sure which scenario, five years ago, would have been less likely: that Rick Santorum is a legitimate candidate for the presidency, or that there’s a debate over whether or not he’s too liberal for the Republican nod. That both have come to pass is an illustration of how the Republican Party has changed over the years. Santorum, and other candidates who used to be on the right-leaning side of the GOP, are now deemed insufficiently zealous, if not full-fledged liberals in sheep’s clothing.
The GOP electorate and the conservative media are holding candidates to a standard that no real person could ever possibly meet. To meet their approval, you must be 100 percent conservative, and by “conservative,” I mean the 2012 definition, not the sort of thing that was acceptable 10 or five or even two years ago. This applies to your voting record, not to mention anything that you’ve ever said or written in your life, whether you were in or out of office at the time. And on top of that, you must have the right attitude, too.
Unless a candidate passes every one of these tests, he runs the risk of being painted by his own side as a RINO who can’t be trusted.
The four remaining GOP presidential candidates have all committed various heresies and blasphemies against the conservative faith. Santorum, despite being every liberal’s idea of a far-right conservative boogeyman, voted for such Bush-era big-government bugaboos as No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D, and both wars, because in the long-ago days of Dubya’s first term, that’s the sort of thing Republicans voted for. He endorsed Arlen Specter for the Senate against Pat Toomey in 2004, choosing to back a sitting senator of his party and his state who also had the support of the Bush Administration.
Romney, of course, passed a health-care law in Massachusetts that looks suspiciously like Obamacare, while also having an abortion position so esoteric that Slate published a 10,000-plus-word article last month about its history and evolution.
Ron Paul’s deviations from current Republican orthodoxy, from his opposition to the war on drugs to votes against actual wars, are well-documented. And Newt Gingrich spent much of his House speakership reaching compromises with Bill Clinton, before retiring to a career of book writing and championing numerous ideas not popular with present conservative thinking. Plus, he made a commercial with Nancy Pelosi in which he acknowledged that there’s such a thing as global warming.
This is a big reason why the nominating contest has gone on so long. As the four candidates have all lived and served in the real world, they’ve sometimes been subject to real-world politics and the compromises and realities that doing so entails. All of these people are conservatives, as the term has generally been understood, and they all self-identify as such. But none has been sufficiently zealous enough to earn the full faith of the conservative base.
This happened in 2008, too. There’s a reason why the GOP rank-and-file reacted so rapturously to the arrival of Sarah Palin— because none of the previous candidates for president, John McCain included, had galvanized them in any way.
You could also say that none of the current GOP crop measures up to the standard set by Ronald Reagan. But guess what? Reagan didn’t either. As the Daily News‘s Will Bunch is fond of pointing out, the Gipper did about 15 different things as president that would likely get him called a RINO and a heretic in today’s GOP.
If Reagan were to come back from the dead and jump into the Republican contest for president, he’d be the liberal in the race, assailed in every debate about raising taxes, cutting and running from Lebanon, and appointing Anthony Kennedy to the Supreme Court.
It doesn’t really work that way with the Democrats. Sure, some who are considerably to the left of President Obama have bashed him for various things throughout his presidency, but very few of them were high-level elected officials or leaders of the left-wing, think-tank world, and there was never serious talk about primary challenge.
The truth is that most liberals, I believe, long ago made peace with not getting everything they want from a presidential candidate. And besides, the Obama/Hillary Clinton contest of 2008 wasn’t a race to the left, and neither of them ever claimed “I’m a real liberal and my opponent isn’t.” Barack Obama never promised perfect liberalism, nor, certainly, has he delivered it.
It’s perfectly natural, of course, for the conservative party to want a conservative candidate. But the right may now be learning the lesson the left accepted awhile ago: in politics, there’s no such thing as perfection.