Here we go again. Rick Santorum’s virtual dead-heat finish with Mitt Romney in Iowa will give rise to a whole new round of speculation that he is the GOP base’s Great Red Hope, following (in order) the yo-yo-like presidential careers of Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich. The punditocracy who need to fill up all that dead air time on cable TV will disseminate the new mythology, glibly parsing the votes to come in New Hampshire and South Carolina.
And pretty much all that will be accomplished is to put off the main event we know is on the horizon--one of the most vicious and probably closest presidential contests ever, between Romney and Barack Obama.
So let’s briefly play out the pretense of the coming days. Gingrich, who along with Santorum remains Romney’s only viable competitor, will huff and puff about the negative ads that Romney’s super PAC ran about him in Iowa. (Actually, all those ads did was point out accurately that Gingrich bears the “baggage” of two decades of expediency, hypocrisy, and flip-flopping in Washington.) Then Newt, who is among the most negative politicians in modern memory, will permit his own super PAC to attack the former Massachusetts governor over his less-than-conservative record.
All of which will do little to help Gingrich achieve what is almost certainly already beyond him, the Republican nomination, and will only boost Romney with the independent and centrist voters he needs to win in the general election, as will the inevitable attacks by Santorum.
And let’s get one thing straight about this latest Red Knight anointed by the churlish Republican base. Santorum, whose views on sexual morality are close to medieval and whose neocon foreign policy (e.g., bomb Iran) won’t fly after a decade of disastrous wars—and who, on top of that, was once considered one of America’s dumbest senators by his peers on Capitol Hill—has very, very little chance of getting close to the nomination. He doesn’t have the money, the infrastructure, or the appeal beyond the hard right. The pundits will talk about his history as a blue-state senator, but the fact is that when Pennsylvania voters learned how truly right-wing Santorum was, he lost by 18 points in 2006 (he hasn’t held office for five years)—which, as Molly Ball of The Atlantic points out, “was the biggest loss ever by an incumbent Pennsylvania Republican senator.”
Yes, Romney will come into the general election with a very unenthusiastic base, but let’s not forget that so will Obama. That’s why some liberals, having grown as leery of the morality of Big Government as libertarians, are now openly flirting with support for Ron Paul, even though he is opposed heart and soul to their central belief: using government to promote social equity. Salon’s Glenn Greenwald, in a powerful broadside this week, observed that progressives are flirting with Paul for the simple reason that Obama "has done heinous things with the power he has been vested," including waging covert wars with both Islamist extremists and with Iran. Greenwald accused progressives of not conducting an honest debate with themselves in which they admit the real trade-offs of this Democratic administration: We'll accept unchecked executive power in which Muslim children are killed as collateral damage in drone strikes and bankers are secretly bailed out, as long as we can have fewer cuts to entitlements and a more progressive Supreme Court. Said Greenwald: "It is the classic lesser-of-two-evils rationale, the key being that it explicitly recognizes that both sides are 'evil': meaning it is not a Good versus Evil contest but a More Evil versus Less Evil contest."
And this, inevitably, will be what the general election will be about as well. It will be less about conservatism versus liberalism than about least-worstism. Fueled by super PAC money—the one true imponderable of this election—the campaign between Obama and Romney will be savage, but it’s not likely to be a campaign over high principle, or what Romney calls the “soul” of America.
This, too, has been the subject of much myth-making in this political season.