He’s gone. But the hole in the Republican coalition that Rick Santorum’s departure created almost certainly will remain.
Mr. Santorum took leave of the American presidential campaign Tuesday, leaving a huge swath of the modern Republican Party without a candidate, without a voice – and perhaps without enthusiasm for the November election.
To be sure, Mr. Santorum was an enigmatic figure from the start: A consensus longshot who emerged as the principal challenger to former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts. A young man with an older man’s temperament. A Catholic whose appeal was with evangelical Protestants. An independent-minded lawmaker put on the defensive for being a team player when Republicans needed his vote for a major piece of education legislation. A former Pennsylvania senator who dropped out of the race when the campaign moved to his own state.
His departure this week was as much a surprise as his meteoric rise to victory in Iowa, where he visited all 99 counties in what seemed a hopeless cause, and his triumphs in states throughout the South, where Mr. Santorum showed unusual strength, where Republicans must have a virtual sweep in the general election, and where Mr. Romney showed almost no appeal. Indeed, Mr. Romney lost six of the eight states of the Old Confederacy that have voted thus far.
As a result, the eclipse of Mr. Santorum provided a sense of relief to Team Romney, exhausted by the marathon that hardly anyone expected and eager to turn its attention to President Barack Obama, who months ago seemed to be a juicy target for criticism but who in recent weeks has become far more formidable an opponent.
Though Mr. Romney’s path to the nomination at the Republican National Convention in Tampa in August now is clear – hardly anyone considers former House Speaker Newt Gingrich much of a competitor anymore – the party still faces an identity crisis.
Mr. Romney is a self-professed conservative, but very few of the new, muscular conservatives of the 21st century Republican Party consider him one of them. He has changed his views on gay rights, universal health care and other issues. His opponents believe he has the air of an opportunist, and they doubt he possesses the zeal of the convert. These conservatives distrust him and will support him by default, not with enthusiasm.
Perhaps more important, this campaign has done nothing to resolve the important Republican questions of this decade: Should the party tilt toward the economic conservatives or the social conservatives? What is the role of faith in the party? Why is there such a chasm between congressional Republicans and the Republicans who run for president? Do Republicans reward party loyalty or ideological independence? Is there room in the party for moderate Republicans like former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. of Utah, who dropped out of the presidential race earlier this year, or Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, a veteran GOP lawmaker who stunned Washington when she announced she did not have the stomach to run for re-election this year?
These questions necessarily will be postponed as the Republicans gird for a general-election campaign against a president who is a gifted campaigner if not a natural incumbent. The Republicans show signs of closing the campaign funding gap and now will avoid having a bitter nomination race tear the party farther apart when it can be preparing for the November election.
Mr. Santorum is an unlikely running mate for Mr. Romney, in part because his views lean toward the rightward extremities of American politics and in part because he has made too many statements decrying Mr. Romney and his (changed) positions.
That said, the 2012 campaign is almost certainly not going to be about Mr. Santorum, or even Mr. Romney. It, like most elections with an incumbent president, will almost certainly be a referendum on the occupant of the White House.
“There’s only one issue in this campaign,” Franklin Delano Roosevelt wrote in 1936 to Raymond Moley, a Columbia University professor who wrote speeches for him before becoming an FDR critic, “and people must be either for me or against me.” With or without Mr. Santorum in race, Mr. Obama, a Roosevelt admirer, might say the same thing.
David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of U.S. politics.