Ted Cruz: Iowa Republican flavor of the month

For once, former Senator Rick Santorum has a message Republicans really should hear. But judging by the coverage of Saturday’s Family Leadership Summit in Ames, the Iowa GOP’s social conservatives may be too smitten with Senator Ted Cruz to notice.

Bob Vander Plaats assembled an all-star lineup for the event he hopes will supplant the Republican Party of Iowa’s widely criticized straw poll. You can watch many of the speeches here. By all accounts, first-term Senator Cruz was the superstar. Telling good jokes and striking the right tone for the audience, he overshadowed Santorum and convinced several conservative commentators that he is the front-runner for the 2016 Iowa caucuses.

Admirers hope Cruz can unite the religious right and economic conservatives, or even three warring factions: libertarians, social conservatives, and mainstream Republicans. Some hope his relative inexperience on the national stage will be an asset.

Jamie Johnson, who’d been Rick Santorum’s coalitions director in Iowa, tells me that Barack Obama “changed the game” in 2008 and proved that someone with just a little time in D.C. could win. “He was in for one year and he was already laying the groundwork.” This is why he’s switched from Santorum to Cruz, who doesn’t have “10 years of votes to apologize for.”

Johnson is also a member of the Iowa GOP’s State Central Committee. He told Shane Vander Hart after the Family Leadership Summit, “I’m going to do everything I can to make sure [Cruz] wins the nomination in 2016.”

Watching Cruz work the audience (three-part video available here), I can see why he is the new flavor of the month. At the same time, I almost feel sorry for Rick Santorum. He’s wrong on most of the issues and has been throughout his political career, yet Santorum has drawn some important conclusions from the last few election cycles. As far as I can tell, conservatives don’t want to hear those inconvenient truths.

Dave Weigel reported that during the former presidential candidate’s 20-minute speech to the Family Leadership Summit,

Santorum spends the time on dark lessons, with personal anecdotes, of how his movement keeps blowing it. He mourns how the 2012 Republican National Convention obsessed over Barack Obama’s “you didn’t build that” gaffe by giving floor time only to aggrieved business-owners.

“Not one time did we see someone from the factory floor walk out there and talk about working for the man or woman who built that business, and talk about how that helped them,” he says. “Not everybody in America is a type-A personality who’s going to spend 80 hours a week building their business.”

Furthermore,

He chided both moderate Republicans and the libertarian wing of the party for not being authentic in their social views and for pushing an economic agenda that left too many Americans behind. The GOP, he said, must become more populist by reaching out to working Americans alongside business owners.

Republicans have “marginalized” working-class voters, pushing them into the Democratic Party.

“We need to reject this idea that if we just build the economy, all boats will rise and everybody will be fine,” Santorum said. “I don’t know about you, but most people I know have holes in their boats and when that tide rises sometimes they don’t rise. Sometimes they sink.”

Speaking to Republicans in Lyon County late last week, Santorum made the same point even more effectively in my opinion.

“If all we do is focus on the job creators and not the job holders we are talking to a very small group of people who would normally agree with us anyway because they have to live with the government and they know what the problems are.  What we did not do in the last election and what we do not do as a party is talk to the folks who want to be with us, but they don’t think we care about them because we don’t talk to them.  Literally we don’t talk to them.”

On the cultural front, Santorum repeated his usual plea to Republicans not to abandon or downplay conservative positions on “family” issues. He added another angle I hadn’t heard before.

Santorum, who recently became CEO of the “family-friendly” EchoLight Studios, lamented conservatives’ inability to get their message across in films and on television.

“In the last 100 years, the worst art has been coming out of the church,” he said. “You as Christians who want to see films, you have to see inferior productions to see something that reaffirms your values … I say to you, can’t we make God beautiful?”

Those comments caught my attention because some of my conservative Facebook friends have complained about this very phenomenon. Why are Christian movies so boring? Why do Christian novels suck? I just want something good to read.

The problem isn’t limited to the family-friendly genre–building an artistic product around an ideological message is not a promising endeavor. (In the USSR, official “social realist” works and even books by leading anti-Soviet dissidents were artistically inferior to the great Russian novels of the 19th century.) I give Santorum credit for acknowledging that his people need to step it up in order to compete for the hearts and minds of young Americans. Other conservatives just wallow in their victimhood when faced with a hostile mainstream culture. The actor Stephen Baldwin told the Ames crowd how hard it is to be a born-again Christian in Hollywood.

I get the impression that even after two bad defeats in consecutive presidential elections, GOP activists are not ready to hear Santorum’s message. Rather, they feel cheered up when Cruz bashes “symbolic votes against Obamacare by those who won’t vote to defund it.”

I won’t complain if Republicans follow Cruz down the rabbit hole, but they would be foolish to do so. Santorum is not a viable presidential candidate either, at least not for the general election, but the next GOP nominee should pay close attention to what he has been saying.

UPDATE: Craig Robinson’s coverage of the 2012 Iowa caucuses and the subsequent GOP primaries was quite favorable to Santorum, who had the backing of Iowa power-broker Nick Ryan at the time. Now Robinson’s far from sold on another Santorum candidacy:

As one would expect, Santorum’s speech resonated with the conservative audience, but it lacked the energy and excitement that Texas Senator Ted Cruz received later in the afternoon.  Santorum’s speech, while good, also did very little to cement himself as the conservative to beat in Iowa should he choose to run for president in 2016.

While winning the caucuses in 2012 gives Santorum a number of advantages if he should decide to run again in 2016, it also means that Santorum will have to deal with something he never had to deal with in Iowa before – expectations.  This means that Santorum will be expected to raise a considerable amount of money, perform well in early Iowa and national polls, and win the first contest – the Iowa caucuses.

Santorum also needs to realize that having won Iowa doesn’t necessarily mean that he will instantly win back the support of everyone who voted for him 2012.  Santorum beat Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, and Michele Bachmann.  The field in 2016 could contain fresh faces like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, two candidates who will likely make a play for those former Santorum supporters.

A Cruz candidacy could be very problematic for Santorum.  As the new darling of the conservative movement, Cruz has caught the eye of Iowa conservatives, including some of Santorum’s most ardent supporters in 2012.  Essentially, he’s the shiny new toy on the toybox.  While it is true that Cruz has only served in the U.S. Senate for just two years, he appears to have become the great hope for conservatives.  That is the position that Santorum should have occupied after having been the alternative to Mitt Romney in the 2012 Republican primary, but Santorum has not been able to establish himself as the conservative to beat.

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