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Steven Cohen

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Rick Santorum and the Cultural Divide

Posted: 03/19/2012 9:26 am

There are times when I listen to Rick Santorum, and since he seems to be heading toward a one-on-one with Richie Rich (Millions) Romney, I want to have some sympathy for him. Then he has to go and denigrate Romney for allowing Ted Kennedy to stand behind him and applaud Massachusetts health reform. Hey Rick, perhaps you didn't get the memo, but your old enemy Ted Kennedy is dead. You may think you're attacking Mitt, but you're really just speaking ill of the dead. You did the same thing attacking JFK earlier in the campaign; maybe you have a thing about the Kennedys.

Perhaps that's why you get a tummy ache when you hear John F. Kennedy's famous Houston "church and state" speech before Protestant clergy. JFK was simply saying that if he became president, the Pope would not make public policy for America. He was not saying that faith and morality would have no place in the "public square:" quite the contrary. You only need to look at the opening two paragraphs of his inaugural address, where he famously began:

"For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forebears prescribed nearly a century and three-quarters ago. The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe -- the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God."

And Rick, in case you missed the inaugural's opening, how about the speech's end?

With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own.

John Kennedy had his share of human failings, but at some point during his brief time on Earth, he developed a sense of faith that influenced his policymaking and influenced his rhetoric. Perhaps he found his faith when he helped save his fellow sailors in the South Pacific. Perhaps it was during one of his many hospital stays. It probably got reinforced when the world narrowly avoided destruction during the Cuban missile crisis. JFK understood the role of faith and public morality in an ethical state. He just didn't think it was his job to establish a state religion. And that is in fact what the constitution tries to prevent.

While Tea Party types want a smaller government, they see no contradiction in government activism on their particular concept of morality. This is what the gay-bashing Santorum seems to descend to on the campaign trail. The world has changed, and while his hero, the Hollywood divorcé Ronald Reagan, understood the need to keep conservatism and government out of family life, the Tea Party crew hasn't figured that out yet. In order to get some attention on the crowded campaign trail, Santorum has decided to engage in a culture war. Taking Rick at his word, it might not be a calculated political decision, but a reflection of his deeply held beliefs. Still, it is divisive and a political loser in this country. While some Americans think it's their job to regulate individual beliefs and morality, most do not. The right to a private home life may not be in the Bill of Rights, but it might as well be.

Santorum's campaign shows signs of becoming increasingly shrill in the face of the momentum and organization of Romney Inc. In a normal political season, Romney would gradually pick up the delegates he needs to wrap up the nomination before the convention. That could still happen in 2012. To prevent a normal political year, Santorum needs to do what the great political scientist E.E. Schattschneider once referred to as "expanding the scope of conflict." Simply put, when you are winning a fight it is in your interest to keep the conflict quiet and contained so you can keep on pummeling your opponent. Romney is winning and would prefer a quiet, contained conflict. Santorum is losing. When you are losing the fight, it's in your interest to scream bloody murder, attract attention to the fight and "expand the scope of conflict." When you're getting pummeled you have nothing to lose by getting others involved. That's where Rick is at in the nomination battle. His current goal is not to win, but to keep from losing. He needs for someone else to take a swing at Mitt -- maybe someone named Newt.

Due to the Electoral College and the legitimizing role of the modern media, American politics, especially at the national level, is the politics of the political center. The goal of political players who are a little on the Left like President Obama or even more on the Right, like President Reagan, is to redefine the political center: to move the center so that their extreme views become mainstream. But, once a position is defined by the media as extreme, it is difficult to move it to the political center. To a limited degree a political issue can be recast and redefined from extreme to legitimate/center. Bill Clinton "ended welfare as we know it" and moved welfare reform from the political right to the political center. It can be done.

But the social and cultural norms of greater individual freedom and less repressed sexuality have been hardwired into our culture. Each year that passes makes these changes more permanent and more accepted social norms. Nearly everyone is close to one if not many gay couples; everyone has a gay cousin, brother or sister. Everyone knows people who have been divorced three, four and even five times. More and more children are raised by single parents. The traditional nuclear family is increasingly the exception, not the norm. Running for president as if America is a 1950's sitcom is slightly delusional. You may win a Republican primary or two by running against gay marriage and contraception, but there are no national elections to be won in that political space.

While a political candidate can flip-flop or "evolve" on policy positions, attitudes on the cultural dividing line are more difficult to fake. In today's world, those attitudes are often more important than policy positions.

For example, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressed students at Columbia University a few years ago, he was a controversial speaker, with most in the audience quite opposed to him, along with a few who appeared sympathetic. However, at one point during the Q & A session he managed to unite the audience against him, losing whatever sympathy he may have started with. He was asked a question about the treatment of gay people in Iran. He responded that "there were no gay people in Iran." His translated response was greeted with laughter, derision and then dismissal. Culture and lifestyle concerns dominate policy issues before a college audience and, without question, before the electorate as a whole.

If Rick Santorum really wants to be president someday, he would be wise to avoid the cultural divide he is making noise about. It might get him 35 percent of a Republican primary vote, but it's not going to generate much more.

 

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