By the end of today there is the distinct possibility that Rick Santorum will emerge as the odds-on favorite to win the GOP presidential nomination. Ironically, this is partly due to the fact that Republican voters have viewed him as the worst of the conservative candidates in the field. Every other candidate who claimed to be conservative had their shot at the top, and fell by the wayside for one reason or another. Santorum just happened to be the last one to be given a shot to be the anti-Romney. (Huntsman never claimed to be a conservative, as far as I’m aware.)
So as the conservative base rallies around Santorum, I want to give the same warning I gave to another group about a different sweater vest-clad individual—be careful what you wish for. Just as I warned Ohio State fans that Jim Tressel wasn’t the squeaky-clean coach they believed, I’m going to warn conservatives that Santorum isn’t the conservative you think he is. Tressel left Ohio State in disgrace, and the program’s reputation has been badly tarnished. If Rick Santorum becomes President Santorum, don’t be surprised if you end up with the same result as the last time he was in office—the Republican Party in tatters, conservatism in disrepute, and independents fleeing to any candidate without an R beside their name.
Returning to Jim Tressel, Buckeye fans immediately fell in love with college football’s Mr. Sweater Vest when he arrived in Columbus. A born-and-bred Ohioan who coached at Youngstown State before coming to CowTown, he replaced John Cooper, who did a respectable job, but committed the unforgiveable sin of losing repeatedly to arch-rival Michigan. With Tressel Buckeye fans felt the native son would “get” Ohio State football in a way that Cooper never did. And Ohio State fans assumed that Tressel would continue the program’s unblemished record of complying with NCAA rules.
But there were problems from the start. Shortly after taking the helm of the Buckeyes, Youngstown State’s football program was sanctioned by the NCAA for, among other things, “lack of institutional control” over the Penguin football program. Who was most responsible for maintaining institutional control during the time period at issue? Jim Tressel. Buckeye fans, blinded by Tressel’s early successes on the gridiron, didn’t even notice. In spite of his soiled record, Tressel’s reputation as a “clean” coach grew.
Tressel became untouchable after he led the Buckeyes to the national championship with a controversial overtime win over the Miami Hurricanes. But even that crown came with a blemish; star running back Freshman Maurice Clarett left the program under allegations of improper benefits and economic non-performance. (A teaching assistant administered Clarett’s exams orally and swore that he actually passed all of his tests. Red flag!) Buckeye fans looked past the Clarett incident.
Throughout his tenure as head coach, Tressel, in my estimation, pushed the legal limits as to what the program could get away with. For example, “Professor Tressel” consistently taught a two- credit pass/fail class on Football Theory each fall during the season. Naturally most of his players took this course, which I’m sure was extremely rigorous. This didn’t violate NCAA rules, but nonetheless, most coaches don’t do it because of the shady perception from the practice. But OSU fans didn’t seem to mind.
Similarly, Ohio state’s graduation rates were dismal under Tressel. Again, this isn’t a rules violation, but having watched college football my entire life, you learn to spot common characteristics among the programs that end up in trouble. Poor grades and coach-professors are two of them. But Ohio State fans ignored these red flags, and the sweater vest grew into a symbol of a football program run under the highest of standards.
The rest of the story is history, as they say, and I don’t want to revisit the specific events that led to his termination. For those unfamiliar, let’s just say that several Buckeye players broke a number of rules, and Coach Tressel lied and covered up the problem. The scandal broke in late 2010, and Tressel continued to lie during the investigation, which bought Ohio State enough time to play in its bowl game in early 2011.
Tressel was finally fired, and none of the players involved returned to the field for the Buckeyes. And while the specific violations weren’t terribly egregious, nonetheless, Ohio State’s football program has been sanctioned by the NCAA for the first time in its storied history. Supposedly squeaky-clean Mr. Sweater Vest left a program long viewed as an example of how to “win the right way” with a serious black eye. (For more transgressions under Tressel, see here.)
Returning to the sweater vest-wearing man du jour, I have the feeling that conservatives will end up with the same sense of disappointment after a Santorum administration as Buckeye fans felt after Jim Tressel was fired. It begins with the reputation. Just as Tressel had a reputation as a “clean” coach, Santorum is presenting himself as a principled, consistent conservative. Unfortunately for Mr. Santorum, we have a track record to review.
As has been recited many places other than here, Santorum voted for the entire George W. Bush deficit spending blowout, meaning if he’s a fiscal conservative, he’s a born-again conservative (pun intended). Santorum defends himself by saying that he really didn’t want to vote for all that stuff like Every Child Left Behind, but he had to be a team player.
That’s not principled, Mr. Senator. That’s partisan.
Senator Santorum’s blind support for the Bush agenda led to him getting thrown out of office in 2006, losing by the largest margin by a sitting Senator in U.S. history. Indeed, his support for W contributed to the huge Democratic wins in 2006 and 2008 and the brand name of the Republican Party being described by some pundits as “worse than dog food.” In an off-hand way, Santorum’s lack of principled conservatism while in Washington led to Obama’s victory in 2008. Yes, you read that right. I’m saying Rick Santorum is as responsible as anyone for getting Barack Obama elected by failing to be a principled conservative when he had the chance.
Yes, Santorum is talking a lot of conservative talk these days. When it comes to social issues I actually believe him. But if you listen to him carefully, there is a lot of “tinkering” proposed in his platform. For example, he wants to eliminate corporate taxes for companies in “manufacturing,” however you might define that word. That is not a principled free market conservative proposal. That is the kind of industrial policy-talk we expect from Obama and the Democrats, not a “consistent conservative,” and it’s the sort of political allocation of capital that led to the housing bubble.
In the end, I see a lot of parallels between conservative supporters of Rick Santorum and Ohio State fans during the Tressel years. Both groups have attributed characteristics to a man in a sweater vest that the man has not lived up to. My prediction is that conservatives will feel as let down by a Santorum administration as Buckeye supporters feel about Jim Tressel. After all, he disappointed once, so don’t be surprised if he does again.
This article is also posted at The Country Thinker.