What people take seriously is always a puzzle. For a time some people took Paris Hilton seriously, perhaps. And some people take American Idol seriously, still. And out here, just down the street, it’ll soon be Oscar time, with the streets closed off so you can’t get anywhere. It seems people still take the movies seriously. But given social media and video games and streaming everything and every sort of platform maybe they don’t. After all, Kodak has declared bankruptcy and they’ve asked to be released from their contract – for the naming rights to the Kodak Theater, built a few years ago specifically to house the extravagant Oscar ceremonies. So the Academy will have to find someone else to pay big bucks to have their name on the theater. Perhaps it will now be The Academy Awards, Live from the Jiffy Lube Theater on Hollywood Boulevard! Actually that sounds more appropriate given the current content of many Hollywood films, and given the process by which they are financed. Sometimes a good lube is necessary. And of course people do take the oddest of sports seriously – no doubt there are curling fanatics in Canada. But few Americans get cricket at all, which is okay because the rest of the world doesn’t really get American football. And the Scots have the caber-toss, in kilts no less. That’s just odd. But then what can beat a good All-American Tractor Pull? Ah well, people will say that they are aghast that you don’t take this or that or the other thing seriously. But it’s all fairly arbitrary.
And except for political junkies and policy wonks, most Americans don’t take politics all that seriously. Why would they? Come November they’ll vote, one way or another, pretty much on a whim, because they seem to be convinced that their vote doesn’t much matter, one way or the other. Politicians – they’re all jerks, and in the pocket of the rich folks who really run things, so one candidate is as good, or bad, as the other. And thus each year fewer and fewer people vote at all. Of course there are exceptions. In 2008 massive numbers of the young and idealistic, and blacks and other minorities, and every even vaguely liberal person who had been laying low since 1972 or so, came out of nowhere and voted for Barack Obama. That was extraordinary, and two years later every angry and frightened elderly white person with a grudge against everything came out and voted for their appropriately angry candidate, sweeping the Tea Party crowd in to power, at least in the House. For a brief time Americans took politics seriously. And now the question for each party is how to get them to do that again, to get them fired up.
But for that you need the right candidate, one that voters take seriously, because that candidate is serious and addresses their serious concerns. And those are rare. This time the Democrats have Obama in place – once inspiring but now obviously pragmatic and cautious – not bad things in and of themselves, but not all that inspiring. He will have to do, and now and then he really can fire up his former fans. But this time the problem is the Republican options. Their past frontrunners, who seemed so promising – Donald Trump and Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain, and the brilliant Jon Hunstman, with the charisma of tree stump, are all gone now. They didn’t inspire anyone for long. And Mike Huckabee and then Chris Christie and then Sarah Palin – who really do inspire the base – decided they wouldn’t run. And that might have to do with each having a sense they would lose to Obama, making them the scapegoat the party would blame for messing up everything. So the Republicans are left with Mitt Romney, serviceable but distrusted by most everyone in the party, and the ever-eccentric severely libertarian and quite elderly Ron Paul, and the mercurial and absurdly bombastic angry man-on-a-mission Newt Gingrich, whom no one likes, which seems to his point – and Rick Santorum.
And in an odd year, where everyone gets a turn at being the new best thing ever, inspiring everyone, this must have been Santorum’s turn. He won three primary contests in one night:
Rick Santorum shook up the race for the Republican presidential nomination by sweeping three contests yesterday, casting doubt on front-runner Mitt Romney’s hold over the party’s core voters.
Santorum beat Romney by 30 percentage points in Missouri’s non-binding primary, where former U.S. Speaker Newt Gingrich wasn’t on the ballot. He topped his closest rival in Minnesota’s caucuses, U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas, by 18 points, with Romney placing third. Santorum topped Romney in Colorado by 5 points.
The results suggest a lingering weakness for Romney, especially among the most conservative Republicans who are focused on issues such as banning abortion. At the same time, Santorum’s new strength may aid Romney in a prolonged fight for the nomination. A revitalized Santorum campaign may mean that he and Gingrich will continue to split the anti-Romney vote, leaving neither with a commanding count of delegates.
Okay now we have to take him seriously. But Kevin Drum doesn’t think so:
So Rick Santorum won three states last night. Does this mean we all have to pretend to take him seriously for the next three weeks? I’m feeling a little queasy over the possibility already.
But Slate’s John Dickerson adds perspective:
The GOP nominating race has become a clash of vampires and zombies. Candidates like Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich appear to die only to rise again, while Mitt Romney walks around not quite alive. In the wild narrative authored by cranky voters (who must not have heard the smart people who declared the race over months ago), the newest plot line is the battle between Rick Santorum, a candidate defined by his conviction, and Mitt Romney, one who has been defined by his lack of same.
Okay, vampires and zombies is an interesting metaphor, and perhaps appropriate, but this doesn’t bode well for the Republicans. Dickerson characterizes Mitt Romney as a sickly front-runner – where the “virus of conservative doubt” suddenly kicks in whenever he has appeared strong. Dickerson likes metaphors, but his point is that both Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have benefited from this same malady:
Romney has so far been able to medicate this problem, by spending money to make his opponents seem unpalatable and by working to turn out his vote. When he doesn’t spend the money, the virus returns. In flyover events like the ones last night, where Romney did not invest much money or effort, there was no groundswell of Romney fanatics rallying to his cause. But there is a passionate core of the party looking for someone loud and proud to speak for them. Romney has never been that guy. The more those voters are told to line up behind Romney, the more they revolt. The three states that voted last night were thick with the social conservatives whom Romney has struggled to court. These bouts of Romney anemia are to blame for the fact that there is no momentum in this race. Winning a contest doesn’t seem to help you very much in the next contest. Another contributing factor has been that the two men fighting to be the conservative alternative to Romney have not been able capitalize on the weakness.
So Romney is still the favorite to win the nomination, as he has the money and the organization and the staff to win, and benefits from the vote-splitting between Santorum and Gingrich. And that will continue, because Santorum and Gingrich say we have to take them seriously now. Neither will quit – ever. But saying everyone has to take you seriously isn’t the same as being taken seriously:
Santorum argues that he is the conservative who can draw bright contrasts with Obama. That ideological message resonates in caucuses, but it hasn’t in bigger contests where voters have thought more about electability. The constant refrain from voters I talked to in South Carolina and Florida who like Santorum but have gone with other candidates is that they just don’t think he can take on Obama.
In the contest of the anti-Romney candidates, Santorum doesn’t have the punch Newt has. On the other hand he also doesn’t have the baggage. He has a winning family story. Also: There is perhaps no greater attribute in conservative politics than sticking to your guns when everyone else counts you out. It’s a political message. It’s a biblical message. Santorum is the walking embodiment of that characteristic. Even his sweater-vest seems on message.
Santorum worked hard in his victory speech to show that he could mount an effective attack against Obama, who he portrayed as a snob who thinks he knows better than regular people.
But is that enough to be taken seriously? That New York Times whiz-bang statistician, Nate Silver says we’re in for a long race:
These are not the hallmarks of a race with a dominant candidate. Nor, even, of a race with a candidate like John Kerry, the best of a somewhat weak lot of Democrats in 2004, but one whom the party settled upon fairly quickly. Instead, this race bears more resemblance to something like the 1984 Democratic contest or the 1976 Republican race. There was a favorite in each of those contests – Walter Mondale in 1984 and Gerald Ford in 1976 – and they were ahead in the delegate count more or less from start to finish. But both contests progressed through all 50 states and were not that far from going to the convention.
There is no one in this race anyone yet takes all that seriously, and Rod Dreher in this item questions Mitt Romney’s electability:
Until last night, I would have pegged Romney as by far the most electable in the GOP field. Now I’m not at all sure. Obviously he has more appeal to the independent swing voters than Santorum does. But who gets excited about the prospect of voting for Romney? If Romney is the next president, he’s going to get no respect from Congressional Republicans, who will know how weak he is, even with his own base.
That’s deadly, and Michael Tomasky is on the same page:
At this point, it’s fair to start questioning how Romney can really unite this party behind him eventually and make people enthusiastic about him. It sure doesn’t look, on the evidence of last night, like he’ll seriously be able to compete with Obama in Colorado or Minnesota. Even Missouri, which Obama lost by 0.1 percent last time, looks problematic for him right now. But the Romney contests to watch in some ways aren’t against Obama or Santorum or Newt Gingrich, but against himself and against history – his numbers, and the overall turnout numbers, from last time. If he doesn’t show impressively in Arizona and Michigan on Feb. 28, GOP power brokers are really going to start wondering what they’ve bought into.
Heck, pushing Romney might be like everyone telling the Republicans to get all excited about curling or cricket, and Josh Marshall points out here that Romney is now polling poorly against Obama, so what’s the point of running Mitt? And Ezra Klein is not impressed with Romney’s money advantage:
Mitt Romney has money. Mitt Romney has lots of money. Between the resources of the Romney campaign and the Romney-allied SuperPACs, Santorum isn’t even competitive. And since Romney also gets more free media, Santorum, by this point, should pretty much be out of the game. But he’s not. And that’s because money – and even media – ain’t everything.
But that’s not nothing at all, and Jonathan Chait does expect Romney to “resume his proven strategy of burying opponents under gigantic piles of money.”
But there are other factors:
What can Santorum accomplish, in the absence of a miracle fund-raising windfall? He can delay Romney’s pivot to the center. Yesterday Romney issued a fierce and even vicious response to the federal court ruling in California overturning the gay marriage ban, implying the judge was biased because he is gay. (On the question of whether two gay people can marry each other, only heterosexuals are impartial.) Santorum can likewise delay the stream of party officials endorsing Romney – none of them want to risk aggravating the right-wing base in the service of associating themselves with a possible loser.
That’s tactical genius – if one guy is not being taken seriously he can always make sure no one else is being taken seriously either. And Peter Lawler summarizes here Santorum’s argument against money deciding the election:
Maybe Santorum’s best point was that it’s stupid to nominate Romney because he’s the richest and best organized candidate. No Republican will be either against Obama. The Republican will have to count on other attributes.
But that is a dangerous argument, as Alex Massie reminds us all that Santorum would be a dreadful nominee:
This, remember, is a man who, as an incumbent, lost Pennsylvania by 18 points last time he ran for office. Nor is it easy to think of a major contender for either party’s nomination in recent years more hostile to individual liberty than Santorum. He makes Hillary Clinton, circa 1988, seem a libertarian wet dream. His conservatism is not the kind of conservatism that has generally fared well at the national level.
But at least one guy is out, again, as Ed Morrissey considers Newt Gingrich’s poor showing:
Gingrich’s third-place finish in Colorado barely beat [Ron] Paul to stay out of the cellar, and Gingrich did finish dead last in Minnesota. There isn’t even a fig leaf of spin from these results to which Gingrich can cling; Gingrich was entirely irrelevant in all three contests, except to the extent that he got beat.
But John Cassidy has another way to look at this:
The race now appears to be turning into a regionally based contest, with Santorum as the heartland candidate, Gingrich as the southern candidate, and the Mittster as Mr. Everywhere Else – or so he hopes. “You know it’s bad,” Joe Trippi noted on Fox, “when the Romney people are putting out a memo saying McCain lost nineteen states last time.”
And Frank Rich complicates things:
Yes, Romney still has more money, more organization, and more delegates (of the few awarded thus far). But a Washington Post/ABC News poll released just before these contests found that by a margin of more than two to one, Americans say that the more they learn about Mitt, the less they like him, and last night added further proof. The standard interpretation of Mitt’s triple defeat on cable news (regardless of network) is that “conservatives rejected Romney.” But who exactly isn’t rejecting Romney?
Of course Scott Galupo argues here that winning the primaries will cost Mitt the general election:
There’s good reason to believe Romney’s relentlessly negative campaigning against former House Speaker Newt Gingrich – and, prospectively, Santorum – is driving up his unfavorables and killing his standing with independents… The more time and money that Romney is forced to spend fending off attacks on his right flank, the longer he will have to wait to repair his brand in the general-election fight against President Obama. Equally obviously, Romney can’t openly make this plea. He can’t say to conservatives, “Hey, stop attacking me now, because I need to start looking moderate soon!”
Romney is in a sort of self-circling death trap: The more mud he’s forced to sling at his conservative opponents, the more muddy he looks to the low-information middle. In effect, Romney grows weaker by acting stronger.
And anyway, at Business Insider, Michael Brendan Dougherty argues here that the election is no longer about the economy:
The last three weeks prove that what gets Americans really fired up is the culture war. Yesterday we saw the 9th Circuit Court overrule the popular referendum in California that banned gay marriage. Rick Santorum, who defined his career in the Senate as the point man for conservatives in the culture war is suddenly surging in the GOP nomination contest. The nation and its media had a week-long freak-out over a minuscule $700,000 grant from the Komen Foundation to Planned Parenthood. And now the Obama Administration and the Catholic Church are in open conflict over whether religious institutions should be dragged into the bedroom to pay for their employees’ contraceptives of choice. No one is saying that jobs are the only issue that matter anymore.
What everyone decided really must be taken seriously shifts. It’s all arbitrary, like the once critical cultural significance of Paris Hilton. What matters changes, then changes again.
And how seriously should we take Rick Santorum? John Cassidy offers this:
Is Santorum plausible enough, likable enough, and durable enough to become a serious Presidential contender? I have my doubts, and so do many members of the Republican establishment, Karl Rove included. In the next couple of weeks, the Romney campaign will doubtless coordinate an attack on Santorum’s record, which includes lucrative spells as a corporate lobbyist and consultant, aiming at doing to him what it did to Gingrich in Florida. The manner in which Santorum handles these attacks, and how he fares in Michigan, will determine his fate. Still, one thing is already clear. He’s no longer a fringe candidate.
And Ross Douthat argues here that the race could drag on if Gingrich’s supporters abandon Newt:
Santorum is a stronger anti-Romney candidate than the combustible and compromised Gingrich, with wider geographic appeal (as he demonstrated last night) and fewer glaring liabilities. So whereas Romney was able to dispose of Gingrich pretty easily during the brief window where the race seemed to be down to a two-man race between them, if he gets into a two-man race with Santorum he’s probably facing a much longer and more grueling contest.
And so it goes. But all these folks cited here are political junkies and policy wonks. Come November folks will vote, one way or another, pretty much on whim, because they seem to be convinced that their vote doesn’t much matter, one way or the other. We’ll get back to normal. No one will take any of these folks seriously, including Obama. And Rick Santorum can look back on one pleasant day when it seemed people actually took him seriously. He’ll be just like the rest of us.