Watch Out Jeb! Santorum Comes Out Swinging

Rick Santorum 2016
Sen. Rick Santorum speaks at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa August 9, 2014. Brian Frank/Reuters

Rick Santorum finally inserted himself into the discussion of the Republican Party's 2016 presidential nomination. In an interview in The New York Times, the former Pennsylvania senator said his closest rivals for support among conservatives, freshman senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, had little to offer but bomb throwing. "Do we really want somebody who's a bomb thrower, with no track record of any accomplishments?" he asked.

The Times reporter interpreted these remarks as illustrative of the stakes involved in securing the support of the GOP's conservative base. "Already," Jonathan Martin wrote, "there is notably less restraint in the language used by the more conservative aspirants than in the public statements from the establishment-backed potential candidates."

I don't doubt it. But there's another angle.

Unlike Paul, Cruz and other the middle-aged white men considering a run for the White House, Santorum is no longer in office (he lost his Senate seat in 2006). While his rivals erode their profiles with public exposure—especially New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and the bridge scandal that still dogs him—Santorum has receded from the spotlight by working as head of a company that makes Christian-themed movies.

But the most important thing is this: Santorum came in second in 2012. That matters greatly in a top-down organization like the GOP, and party bosses have historically honored that.

For years now, the Republican who came in second the first time came in first the second time. That happened with Bob Dole in 1996, John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012, all loyal establishment men. But there's a crucial difference. Santorum is not only the heir apparent; he's also a hard-core conservative who won't have the obvious vulnerabilities that doomed Dole, McCain and Romney. The last runner-up to embody the imprimatur of the establishment as well as the conservative base was Ronald Reagan.

I don't mean to suggest that Santorum is the second-coming of Reagan. Far from it. 1980 is not 2016, and the conditions necessary for the rise of Barry Goldwater's ideological heir are no longer evident, no matter how much Republicans argue to the contrary. But I do mean to suggest that Santorum is likely aware of this symmetry, and that he's going to leverage it.

You could say Santorum came out swinging in the Times interview because there's no time to lose in wooing conservatives. You could also say he came out swinging because that's to be expected of the man forcefully reclaiming his place in the party order after a brief absence. To do otherwise is to risk conveying weakness.

There is an exception to heir apparency. Pat Buchanan, the conservative syndicated columnist who once advised Richard Nixon and Reagan, was the runner-up to Dole in 1996. He never had a chance in 2000 against George W. Bush, who had not run for president before, or against McCain, who quickly claimed the mantle of "outsider" candidate. There was no room left for Buchanan's implacable Know-Nothingism.

If history is any indication, Santorum's real rivals, even in these nascent stages, are not Paul or Cruz or Huckabee. It is probably Jeb Bush, who has the potential, like his brother, to circumvent the GOP's natural order.

And Santorum has a better chance than Buchanan of beating a Bush. George W. was never a runner-up, but he had that magical mix of establishment credibility and conservative bona fides, particularly in his espousing of evangelical Christianity. Santorum performed best in 2012 among Christian right voters. Even the mighty Jeb Bush can't say that.

John Stoehr is the managing editor of the Washington Spectator. Follow him on Twitter @johnastoehr.