David Frum

03.15.13

Rick Santorum's Battle for the Soul of the Republican Party

NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images ()

Since the beginning of CPAC on Thursday morning, Republican proponents of gay marriage have made more progress than they have in years.

Late Thursday night, Senator Rob Portman of Ohio became the highest profile Republican to support gay marriage, an announcement that came seemingly minutes after Foster Friess, the major Santorum backer who won an award at CPAC came close to endorsing same sex-marriage himself. This came on the heels of a packed panel on marriage equality on the right on Thursday night.

But none of this fazed Rick Santorum. The former Pennsylvania senatordidn’t think that the party needed to move an inch on social issues. In an interview with the Daily Beast, Santorum warned that if the party moved to the left on social issues, it would be committing electoral suicide.

This was a point of view shared by the crowds that flocked to Santorum’s book signing in CPAC’s exhibition hall.

For all the warnings of those who said that the Republicans would lose the youth vote if they didn’t evolve on social issues, the crowds around Santorum were relatively young.

Amber Benzing was very excited to get her book signed. She was a Pennsylvania native with a bobbed haircut, too young to vote for him when he ran for senate but excited to support him now.

There was also other young Santorum activists like Cody Warner, a blond, bespectacled young man who volunteered for him in his native Connecticut, and Shawn Thomas, a young African American who had backed the former Pennsylvania senator in the Florida primary.

The book that these young people were lining up to buy and have signed was a slim volume about heroes of the Revolutionary War. It was a very old fashioned topic, and perhaps even an old fashioned format at a conference where conservatives constantly pondered how to reach out to the “Facebook generation.”

Santorum was attracting these folks to buy his relatively old-fashioned book about the American Revolution. He seemed skeptical about the call to modernize and those who thought technology would provide all the answers.

As Santorum said: “There’s all sorts of mediums to communicate your message, but you have to have a message. The medium in which you use is important, but you got to have something to say.”

Santorum emphasized that winning elections wasn’t all he was shooting for. He was looking for “the key to not just to winning, but creating a society that we can all be proud of. We need to stand by the principles that gets us there, and stand by America’s first principles, and that’s what I’ve been articulating.”

As he was walking out of his book signing, he stopped by a mini-hoops arcade set up where some young Republicans implored him to take some shots. Santorum did. He missed the first few but wasn’t deterred. Eventually, some of the shots started to bounce off the rim into the basket.

The question is whether after a few bad elections, social conservatives will eventually start to get some wins as well.