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From GOP debate: Why Obamacare is really Santorum’s fault

Mitt Romney came to the Republican debate prepared with a theory I had not heard before.

Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney shaking hands at the conclusion of Wednesday's Republican presidential candidates debate.

The punditocracy is mostly convinced that Rick Santorum blew it in last night’s debate and that (pending confirmation from the next round of polling and the from next Tuesday’s primaries in Michigan and Arizona) his new status as a frontrunner is in jeopardy.

They are relying heavily on the Bob Dole precedent. According to conventional wisdom, among the reasons that Dole got clobbered by Bill Clinton in the 1996 election is that Dole had been in the Senate so long he couldn’t talk about issues without relying on a kind of insiderspeak that ordinary Americans can’t follow and inherently distrust. If there is a pundit playbook, the Dolespeak analysis is in there and they are relying on it to explain Santorum’s night.

There were at least three big areas in which Santorum had to give complicated explanations for doing things that not only violated his principles but especially, in retrospect, violated the Tea Partyish version of pure conservatism:

  • Earmark spending (Santorum defends the earmark system; Romney attacks it even though he sought earmarks);
  • No Child Left Behind (Santorum voted for it even though he acknowledges it violated his principles because it was proposed by a Repub president and sometimes you have to take one for the team but now he would repeal it), and
  • His support for former pro-choice moderate Repub Sen. Arlen Specter’s reelection in 2004.

Earmarks was the longest and got the most attention. Santorum defends the practice, which is either stupid or a profile in courage. But I’ll spend my pixels on the Specter business because it was so hilariously convoluted.

Obamacare and Santorum

Romney, as you know, has been under the shadow of Romneycare/Obamacare all year. No one has done a better job than Santorum of arguing that Romney’s Massachusetts health care plan (which was once Romney’s proudest accomplishment) is highly similar to the Obama bill that – according to righties – ended freedom in America. And Romney has turned himself into various pretzel shapes trying to emphasize the differences between the two (one is a state program and one is a national program) and de-emphasize the similarities (individual mandate and many more) always ending with a pledge to repeal Obamacare.

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Last night, Romney came prepared with a theory, which I had not heard before, about why Obamacare was really all Santorum’s fault.

Santorum, who was defeated in 2006 after two terms in the Senate, was gone from Washington before Obama became president, which seems like a pretty good start to an excuse. And he has said or done almost nothing that suggests support or sympathy for the principles of Obamacare.

But, as Romney pointed out last night, Santorum did support his fellow Pennsylvanian Specter for reelection in 2004 when he was challenged for renomination by the much more conservative congressman Pat Toomey.

Specter was pro-choice on abortion and was one of the last of the raging Republican moderates, which is the beginning of Santorum’s problem on this one. With Santorum’s support providing cover from his right flank, Specter beat Toomey and then was reelected and then Specter did indeed provide the last crucial vote needed to pass Obamacare in 2010.

So, Romney argued last night: “…If you had not supported him, if we had said, no to Arlen Specter, we would not have Obama Care. So don’t look at me. Take a look in the mirror.”

Why Santorum did it

Generally, if a state has two senators from the same party, they will cover each other’s backs. Santorum and Specter parted company on a lot of votes. But it would have been a big deal if Santorum had supported a primary challenger to his colleague. But Santorum had an explanation that I didn’t see coming. Thus:

Why I supported Arlen Specter. Number one: Because Arlen Specter was a Senator who was going to be the chairman of the Judiciary Committee at a time when the most important issue that was coming up in the next session of Congress was two to three Supreme Court nominees that were going to be available. And one, and maybe two of them, or maybe all three were going to be out of the conservative block. And Arlen Specter was chairman of the Judiciary Committee. We had a conversation.

He asked me to support him. I said: ‘Will you support the president’s nominees?’ We had a 51/49 majority in the Senate. He said I’ll support the president’s nominees as chairman. Every nominee Arlen Specter supported from the time he — he took on Judge Bork and saved Justice Thomas. Every nominee he supported passed. Why? Because it gave Democrats cover to vote for it and it gave Republican moderates cover to vote for it.

(Romney breaks in here to suggest that the ultraconservative Toomey would surely have voted for all those conservative Bush nominees to the Supreme Court, but Santorum had an answer that may or not be true but surely reflected an insiders’ thinking.)

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SANTORUM: “No, because he wouldn’t have been able to give the moderate Republicans and the conservative Democrats the — the leeway to then support that nominee, which is exactly what Arlen Specter did. He defended Roberts, defended Alito. We have a 5/4 majority on the court that struck down that case that you just talked about and is there as a guardian of liberty. And I did the right thing for our country.”

I have long felt that Santorum is more factual, logical and consistent than Romney or Newt Gingrich in the debates. I have no idea whether Santorum really helped Specter in 2004 because Specter had promised to support Bush’s Supreme Court nominees or what weight to assign to the only-Specter-could-provide-cover piece of the story. But the known facts check out and the logic holds up. If so, Santorum turns out to be the reason we have Obamacare and the reason we have Justices Roberts and Alito and perhaps, it will turn out when it is all properly explained, the reason Osama bin Laden is dead but also the reason Mullah Omar is still alive.

The trouble with Santorum’s tale is that it reflects a quality of Washington insiderish thinking that could cause some Tea Party types to throw up (their hands, of course. Throw up their hands.)

This was the (omg) 20th debate of the season thus far. No more are currently scheduled.

Here’s Molly Ball of The Atlantic arguing that that was not the debate Santorum needed.

Here’s Andrew Sullivan on Daily Beast with a contrarian view that Santorum was “on his game,” followed by a conventional view, that the real winner of the Repub nominating contest is Pres. Obama.

A full transcript of last night’s debate is available here.