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Howard Barbanel Headshot

Santorum's Sweater Vests Leave Republicans in the Cold

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When Adolf Hitler came to power and prominence in Germany, the mega movie star Charlie Chaplin was not amused. You may recall that Mr. Chaplin sported a signature short moustache between his nose and upper lip. Hitler wore the same mode of facial hair. Because Hitler was, to put it mildly, an unpleasant personality, it made it impossible for Mr. Chaplin to continue with his own moustache. This lead to a fabulous cinematic skewering of the aforementioned Mr. Hitler in Chaplin's The Great Dictator.

Nowhere near as serious as moustaches or Hitler, I've recently had to come to terms with the popularization of my default wintertime sartorial style by one of the Republican candidates for President of the United States in the person of former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum -- namely the sweater vest. Living in the Northeast, from November through March, I've been wearing sweater vests in a wide variety of colors for well over 20 years now. While it is a conservative way to dress, thanks to the peripatetic Mr. Santorum, said attire has now become synonymous with a level of conservatism that is far beyond my comfort zone and is forcing me to reconsider how to best stay warm while not being branded intolerant.

Santorum appeals to voters on the far right fringes of the Republican Party -- the GOP equivalent of the far left-wing social engineers among the Democrats. What both these groups have in common is a desire to remake the country in their own image because most of us, in their view, are incapable of making the right choices for ourselves.

Social issues have become prominent in 2012 electioneering despite all the really serious and important challenges facing our country. Who cares about the future fiscal health of our economy when we can discuss contraception? What does it matter if Iran acquires nuclear weapons when we can hotly debate just how religious someone is? Why do we need to worry about the cost of filling up our cars when we can hold forth on abortion? Why talk about unemployment when we can debate whether being a Mormon makes you a Christian or not?

Mr. Santorum's sweater vests are a metaphor that conveys a prissiness on personal status issues that remind people of their great-grandfathers. And not just Democrats. There is a vast body of Republicans out there who don't want a Democratic "Nanny State" and equally at the same time don't want a "Fuddy-Duddy State" either. One of the privileges of adulthood is the freedom to make one's own life choices. A lot of folks just don't want the government in their bedrooms, their boardrooms, their doctors offices or houses of worship regardless whether the supposed benign intent emanates from the right or the left.

No end of political commentators hold forth on how many Republicans don't think Mitt Romney is "conservative enough" to get the GOP nomination and that voters are still looking for some imagined "great right hope."

If the GOP is to have any kind of a hope or prayer to unseat President Obama the party needs to drop social issues like a hot potato. To win in November (and to have a reasonable shot at capturing the Senate and retaining the House), Republican candidates have to remember the Clinton-era mantra of "it's the economy, stupid." Democrats are delighted to see the rightward jockeying for the rail going on in the GOP.

The irony of Mitt Romney is that the only way he can become president is if he can pull off another "Massachusetts Miracle"; the GOP needs to make a case to independent voters (who are a plurality in many states) and to disaffected Democrats that they can fix the nation's problems, not engage in a Kulturkampf over personal status issues. The pejorative label of "moderate" hurled at Romney by Mr. Santorum and others are precisely the practical qualities needed to attract swing voters and pragmatically lead the country out of economic mire and congressional gridlock. Extreme ideological positions won't get a Republican elected dog-catcher in a nationwide race.

This is why exit polls in nearly primary after primary show that voters believe that Mr. Romney is the candidate best positioned to run well against the president and possibly beat him. When the issues of "conservative purity" come up, then Mr. Santorum usually prevails. The funny thing about purity is that one can be very alone in one's purity. There's nothing pure about running for president, possibly winning and then having to run the country in real life.

After the Super Tuesday primaries this week, the delegate count is as follows: Romney 415, Santorum, 176, Gingrich 105 and Ron Paul at 47. The number of delegates needed for nomination are 1144. Santorum stays in the race because as Bob Dylan wrote, "when you ain't got nothin', you've got nothin' to lose." Santorum was a second-tier lobbyist before he began his quixotic presidential quest. Doing credibly well will position him for Gingrich-like book deals, speaking tours and maybe a gig on Fox News like Mike Huckabee. He can't seriously think he's getting the nomination. As for Newt, he's taken a whole lot of money from billionaires, so he has to keep trotting down the track to show he's not a one-trick pony. He's also imbued with his own sense of destiny. For Ron Paul? It's all about the national soapbox.

Most Republican voters want reasonableness, competence and a viable opponent to the president which is why Romney keeps winning the majority of the races. Santorum's sweater vests don't give most people that warm and fuzzy feeling; it just reminds them of having to eat their vegetables and do their homework, which is why he can't win.