Rick Santorum Is Right – Better The Devil You Know

by George Kennedy on March 29, 2012

Wouldn’t you know it?  Even the morally and philosophically rigid Rick Santorum says, “We might as well stay with what we have” when speaking of the choice between his GOP rival Mitt Romney and President Obama.  Santorum’s flash of frustration, or honesty, caught everyone by surprise and even Mitt cried foul.  Under intense pressure from Romney and the GOP, the former Senator from Pennsylvania tried to “walk that back” but his truth was out there.  Was Santorum saying, “Better the Devil you Know?

Just a guess, but Santorum may have been speaking for diverse segments of an electorate by now having expressed a range of sentiment from concern to frustration to alarm over the prospect of a Romney presidency.  Romney may be reminiscent of Forrest Gump’s proverbial box of chocolates:  “You never know what you’re gonna’ get.”  When you think about it, Romney continues to represent a virtual festival of inconsistency to many in his party when he offers his latest position on issues important to them.   But, let’s pass on Mitt Romney for the moment.

This is more about the devil we know – President Obama and what we might look for in the interplay between a 2nd term Obama White House and the Republicans in the Congress.  They will still be a major factor.

Here is something that will not change:  The mere mention of the President’s name will continue to evoke strong emotions within the GOP and among his legion of detractors.  The constant wave of anti-Obama vitriol they unleash serves to deepen the political divide – a desirable outcome for conservatives.  Therefore, comity may not be a hallmark of relations between a 2nd term Obama and the GOP as we head into 2013.

Let’s look ahead to November 2012 should Obama win.  The rest of the electorate would be looking at the prospects for a newly re-elected President to miraculously bridge the red state – blue state divide, continue the process of strengthening the economy, and restoring America.  The President likely wants to change the way the world sees us.  Moreover, he has committed to ending combat operations in Afghanistan by 2014 – if not before.  That should buy him some breathing space.

The Supreme Court will have issued its ruling on “Obamacare” and, whatever the outcome, that divisive issue should be off the table.  The President wins in any case because he mustered the political will to tackle a challenge that had cowed his predecessors for nearly a century.

To paraphrase Op-Ed columnist Frank Bruni, Obama has “nutritional value” unlike a Mitt Romney.  Here’s why:  The President does not peddle ludicrous ideas nor does he tout his “intellectualism” as we came to expect from Newt.  Also, Obama is steady at the helm.  He makes considered decisions even though you may disagree with him – as the GOP consistently does.  Three years into his stewardship of the country, we recall the economy was on the verge of collapse and the ship of state was foundering when he assumed the helm.  Small course corrections appear to have put us back on course.  Moreover, the President wants to govern on our behalf – not rule on the behalf of a political, corporate, and financial elite.

Moral leadership to this President would appear to mean doing the right thing in the right way because means matter as much as ends.

The hard truth is President Obama may not have represented the first choice for many in his own party and among independents.  They wanted a challenger to contest the nomination.  However, it is obvious now that the President is still the adult in the room when contrasted with his Republican contenders for the nomination.  By default, and increasingly on merit, the President, according to polling data, is the best choice going forward.

Should Obama emerge victorious this fall – which is by no means assured – he will be battered, perhaps a little grayer around the edges, and with a more furrowed brow.

His success during a second term will rest largely with the makeup of the Congress.  A working majority – hopefully bipartisan – in both Houses of Congress could well produce the beginning of an American renaissance.  A newly energized President unconcerned about re-election might increase his chances of achieving the greatness we all thought he was capable of.  And, the electorate could set aside feelings of hopelessness and, by working with him, bask in a little more success.  Why not?  The voters deserve nothing less.

Shared responsibility:  If the voters want a return to governance over the next four years, they do bear the responsibility for giving their presidential candidate – of either party – the instruments to govern:  a majority Congress and not more divided government.

If the voters want shared sacrifice, that goal will require a majority in the Congress willing to tackle real tax reform that includes additional revenue and greater emphasis on fairness.

Stated in other terms, if the voters want a brighter future than they currently enjoy, they are going to have to give this President, or the President of their choice, political capital to spend this fall.

Ultimately, We share the responsibility for the stalemate we have witnessed since 2010.  The alternative to a working majority in the Congress this fall would be four more years of partisan bickering and gridlock, a larger national debt and higher unemployment, especially with a Republican-dominated government.  The likelihood of this outcome is worrisome to many of us.

Polls suggest that the country is philosophically more conservative than liberal.  That may be accurate.   However, large segments of the population including moderates (in both political parties), progressives, and independents do agree that the face of conservatism today is too extreme to preserve a viable democracy.

The American democracy is now for sale to those wealthy few able to afford hundreds of millions of dollars to install government of their choosing.  A President Romney would most likely not want to see the repeal of Citizens United (perhaps the most odious Supreme Court ruling in recent memory) whereas a newly re-elected President Obama would favor its appeal.

The upside of going with the devil we know is a more politically seasoned Obama who now understands his unique role in history, the entrenched hostility of the opposition to him personally, and the narrow path he has to navigate to meeting some of our expectations.  No more time for idealism.

The legacy the President and his advisors imagined in 2009 and what that legacy may ultimately represent will be a function of his willingness to confront the GOP on behalf of those that elected him.  What price will he be willing to pay to succeed as President?  Will he govern with the support of the people?  Or, will he again resort to the “Father knows best” style that weakened his first term?

We know a victorious Obama will be bloodied but this time, let’s hope he takes us in the ring with him when he goes up against the GOP.  We prefer that he allow us to help him win the fights that lay ahead.  We want to know that his priorities are our priorities, and not those of an embittered GOP.  We can help him deal with them.  Republicans may believe that, contrary to the recent history of the Democratic Party, Democrats are not up to doing battle with them.  Perhaps they will be disabused of that notion in the near term if they lose the women vote this fall because of their “War on Women.”

To a newly re-elected President Obama, if that is the case, we would say, “Ask us, really invite us this time.”  Tell us “Where we’re going, how you propose to get us there.”  No more campaign slogans.  We might surprise you.

After all, Mr. President, if you re-occupy the Oval Office, it would be because we believed it best to remain with the devil we know.

George Kennedy

George Kennedy is a retired senior Foreign Service officer with extensive international experience. He holds a B.A. from the University of Oregon and two graduate degrees from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. Mr. Kennedy was a political advisor to state and federal officials and has authored strategy pieces for Members of Congress and presidential candidates. He serves on the Advisory Board for the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Arizona.

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