Friday, June 18, 2010

The Importance of Signature Issues

It would appear former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum is considering a 2012 Presidential run. To this point, however, he's still playing coy. While I'm not sure about his chances, I do know of one large obstacle he'll have to overcome.

Don't misunderstand, Santorum seems a thoroughly decent and capable fellow. He's a Reagan Republican, a conservative standard bearer, and a very articulate spokesman for and from the Right. Moreover, he's solidly identified with the Pro-Life movement. And therein lies the problem, but not for the reason you may be thinking.

In 2004, while in the middle of his second term, Santorum campaigned for fellow incumbent Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, then still a Republican. Specter was as unreliably conservative and steadfastly pro-choice as Santorum was the reverse. That he would support Specter against his Democrat opponent in the general election, despite their differences, surprised no one. But that he would campaign for Specter during the primary season against Pat Toomey, a candidate as conservative and pro-life as Santorum himself, surprised a lot of Pennsylvania Republicans. So much so, I believe, that it contributed greatly to the nearly 20% loss he suffered in his own reelection bid two years later. When you lose by that much, your base has abandoned you.

As I mentioned, Santorum has been closely identified with the Pro-Life movement from the beginning of his political career. So why did he campaign for the pro-choice Specter? No doubt he felt pressure from both his party and his President. Bush was still in office at the time and he supported Specter's reelection. Loyalty to a party and its leadership is no small thing. Without it, party cohesiveness suffers and along with it the ability to form a congressional majority that can actually govern. Moreover, in a democracy, politicians both do and must compromise. Give a little, get a little. Maybe even get a lot, is the very nature and art of democratic politics. To stand adamantly on principle on each and every issue is a sure recipe for failure as a politician.

But to fail to stand on principle when it's necessary is a just-as-sure recipe for electoral defeat. Fail to stand and the voters will dismiss you as yet another, well, un-principled politician. But when is it necessary? There are without question many occasions, but at least one stands out: A politician who compromises on what are his signature issues, does so at his own electoral peril.

Santorum, over the course of two terms as senator, doubtlessly compromised on a host of issues and paid no, or very little, political price for it. But campaigning for Specter over Toomey, and thereby appearing to abandon a signature issue, made him look to many Pennsylvania voters as yet another cynical politician and he paid the price by being voted out of office in 2006.

If you remain unconvinced, consider as well the plight of former President George H. W. Bush. After the successful prosecution of the first Gulf War in 1991, forcing Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, Bush enjoyed approval ratings that were stratospheric. But less than a year later he lost his reelection bid, managing only a bit more than 37% of the popular vote. What happened?

Some would say Ross Perot happened. But what made Ross Perot happen? When Bush campaigned for the presidency in 1988, to assure the Republican base that he would carry forward the Reagan era fiscal policies, he very famously promised, "Read my lips, no new taxes." Refusing to raise taxes became for Bush, a signature issue. Then, as we know, he raised them anyway. A base that was always wary of Bush's ideological fidelity anyway, abandoned him almost as quickly as they had rallied to him during the build-up to the Gulf War.

Can Santorum overcome this? I'm not sure. If I was forced to guess, I'd say no. But the lesson is clear nevertheless. When a politician takes office, he would do well to make for his desk, as a reminder, a plaque that lists his two or three signature issues, the issues with which he is most closely identified, and every time he is pressured, every time he is tempted to vote, to campaign, to argue otherwise, he should remember the potential cost.