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S.C. Primary: Why Rick Santorum Is Stalling Out

Posted: 01/21/2012 1:21 pm

TAMPA, Fla. -- Maybe Rick Santorum is too Pittsburgh to be president.

Pittsburgh made Santorum a U.S. senator, but now it may be unmaking him as a finalist for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.

In both style and substance, there simply may be too much Western PA in the former senator to get beyond the "Final Four" of the GOP playoffs, as he put it during the CNN debate on Thursday.

When Santorum criticized Newt Gingrich for being "grandiose," he was not only stating the truth. He was expressing a deep-seated prejudice of Pittsburghers, whose creed requires them to despise show-offs, showboats, braggarts and anyone who doesn't display the chesty, steel-mill-union-bred sense that no one is above anyone else.

In Pittsburgh, they worship sports stars, but not because they dance in the end zone or talk about their pain. The city is proud of its titans of industry, but caustically realistic about them. When Andrew Mellon donated money for a new church in town, the locals named it "Andy Mellon's Fire Escape." Wiz Khalifa is a Pittsburgh guy. His songs are full of the usual rapper riffs about bubbly, blunts and booty. But he is careful to tout the Taylor Gang (named after his high school and mine) and to offer his song "Black and Yellow" (about his car) as an anthem for the Steelers.

In Pittsburgh, people who don't honor the leveling credo are "jagoffs," an epithet with rich layers of meaning. But generally, jagoffs tend to be loud, know-it-all, self-aggrandizing buttinskys. They behave erratically and inconsiderately, and bluster their way past their own shortcomings, flaws and hypocrisy in their zeal to make themselves the center of attention.

If Newt Gingrich comes to mind, that was exactly what Santorum intended on CNN the other night. He all but said it out loud: Newt, you might become the nominee, you might even become president, but you're still a jagoff.

Of course there are more than a few people who see Santorum himself in the same way. He is tough and nasty, to be sure. And he was and is egotistical enough to be running for president in the first place. And he is utterly convinced of his own rectitude. But he's just self-effacing enough to get by, Pittsburgh style, sweater vest and all. His characteristic gesture is not an enthusiastic wave, but a weary shrug.

This lack of showmanship served him well in Pennsylvania. A hard-right social-issue conservative Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic part of the country, Santorum had an even greater need to convince people of his basic humility. He couldn't have gotten elected in Pennsylvania had he been "grandiose" in a Newtonian way.

The same approach worked perfectly in Iowa, where he visited all 99 counties -- most of them more than once -- and sold himself as a hard-working guy willing to take on all comers. It took nearly two years for him to make the sale there -- and, come to find out, he succeeded. There isn't enough time for that approach now.

Style aside, Pittsburgh has created another, more serious handicap for Santorum: his voting record and stands on economic, regulatory and labor issues. Santorum learned to play ball with United Steelworkers and other unions on a host of issues, including right-to-work laws. In the tradition of all Pittsburgh (and Pennsylvania) politicians, he was an enthusiastic pork-barreler and earmarker. You are dead in PA if you aren't, given how creaky the infrastructure is. He learned to cut deals with the big corporations in the state, for whom government regulation is a reality to be dealt with, not an ideological crusade to fight.

As passionately traditional as he is on matters of faith and culture -- and that, by the way, is something of a Pittsburgh trait, too -- he was willing to play a realist's game when it meant using the power of government to steer money and jobs to the region.

The Republican race in 2012 is not a game for realists. It's for purists -- and jagoffs.

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