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Thursday, May 28, 2015
Rick Santorum: A Good Man Who Missed His Moment

Rick Santorum: A Good Man Who Missed His Moment

Former U.S. Senator and GOP presidential nominee, Rick Santorum | (Photo: Screen Grab via NBC)

Yesterday, former Senator Rick Santorum announced he was joining the increasingly crowded field vying for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Senator Santorum's announcement put me in mind of the path taken by another conservative who lost the Republican nomination and four years later claimed the nomination and the White House – Ronald Reagan.

But the history and the contrast between the two is not a favorable one for Senator Santorum, who probably missed his moment after the 2012 defeat of Mitt Romney.

In 1976, after Ronald Reagan lost the Republican nomination for President – or as many conservatives believe was cheated out of the nomination – he did three things that made him the leading figure in the conservative movement and led him ultimately to win the Republican nomination and the presidency in 1980.

First, he formed a PAC - Citizens for the Republic – to enable him to continue his political activities and to support like-minded candidates.

Citizens for the Republic kept Reagan visible on the road making speeches in support of conservative candidates. Citizens for the Republic was an important factor in recruiting and electing the Senate Class of 1980 that put Republicans back in the Senate majority for the first time since the 1950s with a core of conservatives who were some of Reagan's most reliable supporters. CFTR still exists by the way, run by my friends Laura Ingraham, Craig Shirley and Diana Bannister.

Second, Ronald Reagan lent his name to a variety of conservative causes and organizations. He raised millions of dollars and built the membership of some of the then-essential organizations of the conservative movement, such as the National Conservative Political Action Committee, but none was more visible and important than the effort to keep the Panama Canal under American control.

Reagan and Senator Paul Laxalt of Nevada were tireless in their efforts to rally the conservative grassroots to defeat the Canal giveaway. And when the Republican National Committee refused to commit any of the money they were raising off Reagan's name and opposition to the treaty, I volunteered to raise the money to put a "truth squad" led by Reagan on the road to fight the treaty.

I might add that we raised over twice the amount of money we were asked to raise, and in the process added thousands of names to Reagan's list of small donor supporters who proved crucial to his success in his subsequent campaign.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, after the 1976 defeat of President Ford, while the Republican establishment reeled from its loss of power, Ronald Reagan seized the leadership of the conservative movement.

He had a daily radio show and regular newspaper column that made the case for his brand of optimistic conservatism and presented his conservative ideas as the alternatives to the failures of the Democrats and the Republican establishment on foreign and domestic policy.
By acting as a leader and actually leading, Reagan, almost by default, made himself the leader of the conservative movement and the leading conservative in the race in 1980.

It is virtually lost to history now because in the light of Ronald Reagan's success it is almost impossible to find anyone in Republican or conservative politics who will admit to favoring another candidate in the early stages of the 1980 campaign, but there were other conservative contenders for the presidency in 1980.

Conservative Congressman Phil Crane and Texas Governor John Connally both threw their hats in the ring, and on paper both had much to recommend them over Reagan. They were younger, they had more current experience in office (by 1980 Reagan had been out of office for six years, a lifetime in politics).

Connally and Crane might also have legitimately claimed to be more conservative than Reagan on taxes, since as Governor Reagan had been forced to compromise and raise taxes to put California's fiscal house in order.

But Reagan seized the moment after the 1976 election, led, and by leading became the strongest conservative in the race and the eventual nominee and President.

I relate all of this to Rick Santorum's announcement because – regrettably – after his loss in 2012 he did none of these things.
Senator Santorum's announcement speech had some solid points, especially his point that "Working families don't need another president tied to big government or big money."

His remarks criticizing Hillary Rodham Clinton and "big business" for pro-immigration policies that undercut American workers shows he has updated his message, but where has he been for the past three years when conservatives were crying for leadership on this very point and Alabama's Jeff Sessions was virtually alone in carrying the message about the destruction Obama's immigration policies have wrought on America's working families and middle class?

Rick is a good man, a strong family man, strongly pro-life, and his incisive observations about the importance of family to the strength of the Nation and civil society are every bit as true today as they were four years ago. But others, notably Ted Cruz, have taken-up many of the issues that Santorum had largely to himself in 2012.

Perhaps Santorum's calculation is that in a crowded field he only needs 12 to 15 percent, particularly in Iowa where he won, but was cheated out of the momentum his victory would have given him when the Republican establishment made an early call of the race for Romney.

But even a narrowly focused campaign of that nature requires a base. To the extent that Senator Santorum had a base after the 2012 election, as I see it most of Rick Santorum's base in Iowa and elsewhere long ago moved on. You can't be off the radar for three years and expect to rekindle the fire, and the campaign infrastructure, necessary to win a modern presidential campaign.

Rick Santorum is a good man with many admirable qualities, but 2012 was a weak Republican field. Today, we have the strongest conservative field since 1980, with Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Scott Walker at the top and dark horses, such as Bobby Jindal, helping to frame the campaign in conservative terms.

Four years ago I, and most conservatives, eventually supported Rick Santorum and, in the vacuum left by Romney's defeat, for a brief time after the 2012 election he had an opportunity to seize the role of chief spokesman and standard bearer for conservatives, especially social conservatives.

For personal reasons of his own he chose not to seize that moment. He's been largely invisible for the past three years and you can't go off the radar that long and then mount a successful campaign. Others like Ted Cruz are now the recognized leaders on the issues Rick Santorum had largely to himself in 2012. Much as I hate to say it, despite his many admirable qualities, I think Rick Santorum's moment has passed.

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