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Santorum Revives Bush Coalition

Santorum Revives Bush Coalition

"Now is the time to act or get stuck with a bland, boring, career politician who will lose to Barack Obama.”

-- A swipe at frontrunner Mitt Romney in a fundraising email from Rick Santorum, who represented Pennsylvania in Congress for 17 years.

Conservative pundits are enthusing over Rick Santorum’s bid to be the “Not Romney,” donors are revving up for the former Pennsylvania senator and the first useful post-Iowa poll in New Hampshire shows him climbing from fifth place in mid-December to third place behind Mitt Romney and Ron Paul.

It is a mystery to some, how a man out of office for nearly six years, with little organization or money, has suddenly become the celebrated standard bearer of so many on the Republican right.

Much of this Santorumentum is derived simply from the media spasm surrounding the photo finish in the Iowa caucuses and his surprising second-place showing. But that is fleeting affection – the same kind that might be given to a long-shot racehorse that wins the Kentucky Derby or an actress who beat big names for an Oscar.

But the more durable portion of Santorum’s support stems from the fact that he is doing what every other “Not Romney” contender so far has been unwilling or unable to do – resurrect the George W. Bush coalition.

It has become very fashionable in some Republican circles to quietly deplore the 43rd president. Bush, they say, gave us Obama. Their thinking goes that too many wars, too much spending and too heavy an emphasis on social issues – particularly gay marriage – turned independent voters off the Republican brand.

And Bush fatigue certainly has been part of the mainstream Republican discussion. Even admirers of the former president said that his brother Jeb, the popular former governor of Florida and conservative policy wonk, was boxed out of the 2012 process by his last name alone.

The 2012 contenders have often been at great pains to distance themselves from Bush – whether it be railing against the TARP bailout package, the Medicare prescription drug program, No Child Left Behind or a foreign policy aimed at standing up moderate Muslim states.

Bush’s successor as the governor of Texas, Rick Perry, who sounds an awful lot like Bush and wears the same kind of cowboy boots, has worked to show that the two men are different culturally (Yale vs. Texas A&M) and for their brands of conservatism. Texas Rep. Ron Paul almost never fails to lay blame on Bush when he is lambasting President Obama’s foreign and domestic policies.

Frontrunner Mitt Romney has been happy to associate himself with part of the previous president’s coalition – touting the endorsement of President George H.W. Bush and his 1988 and 1992 running mate, Dan Quayle, and frequently mentioning having read George W. Bush’s memoir – but hasn’t gone for a full embrace. Romney has hedged a bit on the Bush foreign policy doctrine and laid out an economic plan that differs on key points from the policies favored by the Bush team.

But forgotten in all this Bush bashing, though, is the potency of the former president’s coalition, or perhaps we should say coalitions.

In 2000, George W. Bush won the Republican nomination by being the first establishment Republican candidate to harness the power of the Christian, cultural conservatives who dominate the GOP base. Ronald Reagan had brought about an alliance between groups like the Christian Coalition and the Chamber of Commerce, which hugely empowered the religious right.

By the time the elder Bush was fending off attacks from Pat Robertson in 1988, social conservatism had become the beating heart of the Republican Party. Bush, whose story of personal salvation as well as his vision of a “compassionate” conservatism in which the government partnered with religious groups to provide welfare services were big hits with the same evangelical voters who had shunned his father.

Bush delivered on his promises to these supporters with a partial-birth abortion ban (championed by Santorum) an end to federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research, pro-life judicial appointments, a push for a constitutional amendment blocking same-sex marriage and the creation of an Office of Faith Based Initiatives to provide federal funding for religious charities.

By 2004, Bush’s coalition had changed dramatically in the three years following 9/11. While he kept the Christian Coalition and Chamber of Commerce on board, Bush added to that the defense hawks and neoconservatives who wanted to keep the U.S. on the offense against radical Islam.

As was the case for the nation, the issues of terrorism and the Iraq war blurred and muted other political considerations. It also allowed Bush to add stalwart new supporters and keep the Republican base intact in ways that his father could not.

Santorum today casts his decision to endorse Sen. Arlen Specter, then a liberal, pro-choice Republican from Pennsylvania instead of conservative Pat Toomey, as an effort to get conservatives on the Supreme Court. But the issue that dominated the discussion in 2004 was the Iraq war. Certainly a John Kerry victory would have ended the American effort in Iraq, but so too might have Democratic gains in the Senate.

Going into the race, Republicans held a reedy 51-seat majority and Democrats were looking to take control. Republicans, thanks in part to Santorum’s efforts, ended up with 55 seats and ended Democratic notions about forcing a timetable for Iraq withdrawal or funding cuts on Bush.

For all of the talk of Bush fatigue, these three tribes -- social conservatives, business-backed establishmentarians and war hawks – can utterly dominate the GOP when working together.

The libertarian side of the party has been dominant since Bush left office, but Santorum’s ascent into the GOP presidential contest’s top tier should serve as a reminder to all of the potency of the Bush coalition the former senator helped create.


And Now, A Word From Charles

“This budget strategy is a roadmap of American decline. It's going to reduce our capacity as it does exactly what the president had said he was not going to do today, which is it will adapt our strategy and our capacities to fit a budget. And this is a budget without any cuts in entitlements, which is killing us and adding to the deficit, but instead he takes it out of defense.

He says we don't want to have a new large ground wars. Well, I agree. That is fine. But sometimes a Pearl Harbor happens or invasion of South Korea or a 9/11 and then a ground war is thrust upon you. It's not as if it's a choice.”

-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier


Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com.

Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as digital politics editor based in Washington, D.C.  Additionally, he authors the daily "Fox News First” political news note and hosts “Power Play,” a feature video series, on FoxNews.com. Stirewalt makes frequent appearances on the network, including "The Kelly File," "Special Report with Bret Baier," and "Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace.”  He also provides expert political analysis for Fox News coverage of state, congressional and presidential elections.