What do Rick Santorum and Clint Eastwood have in common?

Sorry Rick, you haven’t made it yet as an Eastwood-style make-my-day cultural icon. But in different ways, Santorum and Eastwood have demonstrated the limits of both an entirely negative slant on politics and a pessimistic take on America’s future.

Santorum’s Tuesday sweep of Republican presidential contests in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado was a sharp rebuke to Mitt Romney, the on-again, off-again “inevitable” GOP nominee who has built his campaign almost entirely on attacks. His primary target has been President Obama, but Romney has also been relentless in his assaults on former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who admittedly gives him a lot of material to work with.

What Romney has failed to do is give voters strong reasons to be for him. He’s missing what Richard Nixon (yes, that Nixon) called “the lift of a driving dream.” And signs of economic improvement are making Romney’s critiques of the Obama economy more problematic by the week. In the meantime, Santorum keeps getting more appealing simply by staying out of the Romney-Gingrich slugfest.

As for Eastwood, his Super Bowl ad for Chrysler led many conservatives to reveal themselves as whiny complainers incapable of celebrating the achievements of American enterprise and public policy. To paraphrase the late Jeane Kirkpatrick’s effective 1984 jab at Democrats, Republicans always blame American government first. If government (and, God forbid, Obama) had anything to do with the revival of the American auto industry, let’s not dare be happy about its comeback.

Never mind that Eastwood was right to offer his lovely tribute to American resilience. “It seems that we’ve lost our heart at times,” Eastwood said. “The fog of division, discord and blame made it hard to see what lies ahead. But after those trials, we all rallied around what was right and acted as one. Because that’s what we do. We find a way through tough times, and if we can’t find a way, then we’ll make one.”

This is a partisan message only if one party embraces the role of advocating “division, discord and blame.” And, bless him, that’s exactly what Karl Rove chose to do. He grumbled on Fox News that the ad was “a sign of what happens when you have Chicago-style politics, and the president of the United States and his political minions are, in essence, using our tax dollars to buy corporate advertising and the best-wishes of the management which has benefited by getting a bunch of our money that they’ll never pay back.”

Let’s put aside that most of the money from the Chrysler bailout has already been paid back, and that the initial loan to Chrysler was advanced by the Bush administration for which Rove once worked. Rove’s normally sharp political instincts failed him here. Why not celebrate Detroit’s resurgence as an American victory and move on?

That’s what Rove’s Fox colleague Bill O’Reilly did, arguing that Eastwood was “trying to get Americans saying ‘we’re coming back, we’re gonna rally around, we’ve got bad times, we’ll work our way out of it like we’ve always done.'” It’s not my habit to agree with O’Reilly, but good for him for recognizing that maybe it is morning in America, or at least the end of a long, dark night. You don’t have to be for Obama to feel good about that.

Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton all understood that Americans prefer hope and optimism to gloomy declarations of impending doom. Why would Romney and so many in his party want to be the doom guys?

Romney’s problem is that he is caught in a cycle he can’t seem to escape. Santorum’s victories this week reflect Romney’s ongoing problems with the right wing of the Republican Party. Romney’s solution is to keep trying to win conservative hearts by bashing Obama ever more energetically. His speech after his defeats on Tuesday thus began with a litany of the president’s failures. Romney only got to more hopeful talk toward the end by invoking his father, the former Michigan governor who was indeed an admirable man.

But Romney can’t summon hope through his dad. He has to offer it himself. Yet his strategy seems to require a constant doubling down on glumness.

Clint Eastwood knows better, and so did Reagan. Romney should not want to be associated with salvos against Obama so repetitious and predictable that he is starting to conjure memories of the Gipper declaring: “There you go again.”

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.

© 2012, Washington Post Writers Group

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