Rick Santorum was a graceless presidential candidate, so it is not surprising that he made a graceless exit yesterday.
The fight for the Republican nomination was, as I wrote in this space on Feb. 1, effectively decided when Mitt Romney won the Florida primary. Neither Santorum nor Newt Gingrich, the two challengers who still had viable candidacies at that point, was ready to quit. Nor was Ron Paul, whose candidacy has never been viable, but who continues to run anyway.
Fair enough. The four-man field slogged through nearly two dozen additional states as Romney predictably widened his delegate lead. As the front-runner and inevitable standard-bearer for his party, Romney avoided personal attacks on his rivals (though his proxies and supporters were not so chivalrous) and focused his criticism on President Obama, whom virtually every Republican wants to defeat in November. Gingrich and Paul, though less well-endowed with money and proxies, likewise mostly stayed within the bounds of party decorum.
By Easter Sunday, Gingrich was ready to admit that Romney’s nomination was inevitable (though he has not yet dropped out of the race), and he promised to support the GOP ticket in whatever way he was asked.
The affable front he put on before his campaign gained traction soon fell away as the field narrowed and he was left standing as Romney’s chief challenger from the right. To some extent, Santorum was understandably frustrated, because Gingrich’s refusal to withdraw continued to split the anti-Romney vote, which worked to Romney’s advantage. But since he could gain nothing by alienating Gingrich, Santorum vented his spleen on Romney instead.
He did not attack Romney’s positions on social issues such as gay marriage and abortion, because those positions are not very different from Santorum’s positions; he attacked Romney’s sincerity. Santorum also attacked Romney’s business success and resulting wealth, as though personal accomplishment should be a disqualifier for public office. He attacked Romney’s fitness to head the Republican ticket due to his support for Massachusetts’ health insurance mandate, which became a model for Obama’s federal law. Never mind that the chief Republican objection to the Affordable Care Act is that it injects federal bureaucrats into matters constitutionally reserved to the states.
By the time Santorum stepped before the cameras yesterday, he had burned most of the political bridges he had yet to cross, and he seemed intent on finishing the job.
Santorum did not endorse Romney, or commend him for a well-planned and well-run campaign. It was not Romney’s fault that Santorum lacked the organization necessary to secure a place on a vital primary ballot like Virginia’s. Nor was it his fault that Santorum lacked the political common sense not to declare that President John F. Kennedy’s comments on separation of church and state made him want to “throw up.” JFK, the first Catholic president, is a political icon in many of the homes that any presidential candidate needs to carry in order to win.
Yet Santorum did not even mention Romney’s name yesterday. Neither did he pledge to support the GOP ticket, as Gingrich had, though Santorum did say he would try to defeat Obama. While we can still expect Santorum to eventually issue a belated and grudging endorsement of Romney, yesterday was the time to bury the hatchet.
Santorum mentioned that he decided to “suspend” his campaign over the weekend, when he was home celebrating Easter and tending to his very ill 3-year-old daughter. But he apparently only got around to telling Romney on Tuesday. The delayed notice would have caused Romney to waste precious money against a Santorum non-candidacy in Pennsylvania, except that Romney had the decency to pull his negative TV ads out of respect for his rival’s family situation.
Some of Santorum’s allies in the religious right made noises yesterday about gaining a high place for the Pennsylvanian in a Romney administration. The New York Times reported that Richard Land, an official at the Southern Baptist Convention, speculated that Santorum might be a Romney appointee as health and human services secretary.
My bet is that Santorum stands a better chance of being appointed to the College of Cardinals by the pope. Romney’s business background emphasizes discipline and teamwork; his personal demeanor is modest and thoughtful. As much as they are politically similar, these two men could hardly seem more personally different, apart from their devotion to their families. Assuming Romney wins the election, which is quite an assumption at this point, putting Santorum in his cabinet would be sure to cause a ruckus sooner or later over social issues - probably sooner. This would hardly be a smart move for a chief executive who wanted to focus on the economy. Romney usually makes smart moves.
So as Santorum retires to lick his wounds, and the Republican nominating process goes through the motions of deciding something that has already been decided, we can turn our attention to other matters. Obama and Romney will engage in trench warfare from now through the summer, each digging into his political foxhole, taking opportunistic potshots at one another. The parties will rally their bases at their summer conventions, and the handful of uncommitted voters in the handful of swing states that will determine the election’s outcome will start to get serious in the fall.
The opening act is over, and only the actors with the leading roles will return to the stage. It’s intermission.