The Last Ballad of Rick Santorum (Maybe, But Probably Not)

Summer of 2015 is upon us, and as I’ve previously discussed in excruciating detail, the season of rampant election speculation is kicking into high gear. As you get your tour started, be sure to reserve your Greyhound ticket to Butler, Pennsylvania for next week, as your friend Rick Santorum wants to make sure you’re in town and ready to rock on May 27!

“On that date, we’re going to make an announcement on our plans,” he said on Fox News.

Santorum wouldn’t confirm that he plans to officially announce his bid that day, but spoke like a prospective candidate, telling Fox News host Greta Van Susteren he’s looking for a “facility there to talk about what it was like growing up there and where America needs to go in the future.”

Tell us where to go, Rick. Tell us where to go.

By now you are probably vaguely aware that Rick Santorum is not a great guy, and it is likely your general opinion that it would be a bad thing if he were elected president in 2016. Fortunately, Rick Santorum will not be elected president in 2016. Indeed, Rick Santorum is a “presidential candidate” in that he is an American human who is constitutionally eligible to be elected to executive office. To really call him a candidate, though, with the implication that he’s going to mount any semblance of a serious campaign in which he will display a nuanced worldview on a variety of important topics relevant to the future of our nation (much less actually, you know, win the election), is pretty charitable. Yet the clarion call of Cleveland clangs loudly for Rick, and damned if he won’t try to take all the money you’ll give him in the meantime!

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Subject line subtlety is affirmatively not Rick’s thing. Sidebar #1: I receive all of these emails thanks to my dear friends Sam and Zack, who pretty well wrecked my inbox two election cycles ago by signing me up for every fringe candidate’s fundraising emails. I’ve been on these lists for so long, actually, that I was once invited to a private conference call, along with the rest of Michele Bachmann’s “oldest and truest supporters,” in which she discussed her campaign’s strategy in the lead-up to the Iowa primary (which was apparently not so great, given that she was forced to drop out right afterwards after receiving about 6000 votes, but whatever, I was still excited). I spent an hour and a half on hold in line to ask her a question (my plan: “Do you blink?”). Didn’t get through, but I have absolutely no regrets. I digress.

Hilariously vulgar Dan Savage campaigns aside, who is Rick Santorum? The man spent a total of 16 years representing the good people of the Keystone State, first in the House and later in the Senate. Highlights of his reasonably uninspiring track record as a legislator include the failed Santorum Amendment, which would have amended the No Child Left Behind Act to require the presentation of intelligent design alongside evolution in science classrooms (unfortunately for him, the Santorum Amendment is only the second-most famous noun named after him); his still-somewhat-murky involvement in the K Street Project, the pay-for-play lobbying scheme that came to light during the Jack Abramoff scandal; and, eventually, getting whipped by in his 2006 re-election bid by a whopping 18 points after spending most of his campaign defending bizarre comments he made describing a “gathering storm” of Islamic terror (the same phrase used by Churchill to describe the threats posed by Nazi Germany) and, oh, casually describing child predation as likely caused by Boston liberalism. At one point considered a legitimate rising star in the Republican Party (one of the original Gang of Seven, along with Speaker Boehner!), after his rather ignominious ouster from elected office he’s dabbled in consulting, served on corporate boards, done a talking head stint, and written a handful of columns for noted President Obama fan club newsletter World Net Daily.

And yet! Down but not out, one more thing he’s managed to do with remarkable success is, somehow, making sure that his name and the word “president” are never too far apart from one another. Then-mounting buzz for a potential 2008 run dissipated quickly after his embarrassing 2006 loss, but he came storming back in 2012, getting cute in Iowa and winning a couple more primaries before getting buried (it’s become a theme) by Mitt Romney on Super Tuesday. But no matter. Despite largely avoiding the headlines and/or relevance since then, as 2016 draws closer, here we go again. Do not let his coy emails fool you. Do NOT.

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Sidebar #2: Expressly relying exclusively on the appearance of one’s own indecision to solicit donations (“I am hemming and hawing about whether to do this, and if I know I have supporters I might be marginally more likely to do it, and if I don’t run it will at least in part be your fault because I had no way of knowing that you supported me, and if ONLY there were some way for you to demonstrate your support for me, getyourcheckbook“) is kind of a sleazy way to scare up some money no matter who you are, but again, I digress.

So how does Rick Santorum manage to stay relevant? A wonderfully dependable lesson of American politics, shouts to Joe McCarthy, is that no matter how irrelevant one politician can manage to be, if you manage to portray something as a Hunger Games-y free-for-all in which your opponents are hell-bent on doing away with your way of life, you’re inevitably going to sucker in some sponsors from the Capital who are willing to spend their hard-earned money to send in gifts on silver parachutes. And you stay alive. So Rick Santorum reframes the whole damn election as a referendum on his supporters’ very identity. According to him, it’s not about the economy, or taxation, or entitlement reform, or foreign policy, or, you know, one of any number of important issues for which the executive is supposed to help set the agenda.  No, for him, the election is about “protecting the family” (yes, the true victim of hardship in modern society) from a nebulous, vaguely described Other by, principally, fighting to restrict abortion (spoiler: DOWN WITH IT) and condemning homosexuality (ditto). To wit:

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This is why you’re running for president? That’s the one reason? That’s the thing we’re hanging our hat on? Really?

Rick Santorum is neither a conservative hero nor the right wing’s Peeta (I guess social conservatives are Katniss, then, which would probably make them furious for some reason, and maybe Rubio is Gale? Whatever, I am really bad at analogies). Rick Santorum is a culture warrior in the most pejorative sense of the term, a disingenuous grifter and ex-politician who, in order to stay relevant, has calculatingly latched on to a few choice emotional issues that manage to stir up a potent combination of hysteria, anger, and fear in a certain population while simultaneously casting himself as the one who can put to rest those people’s worst fears. He can’t win the election — again, it bears repeating that Rick Santorum hasn’t actually won an election since the beginning of the Bush Administration — and he knows that good and well. He hasn’t even officially declared his candidacy yet, but by just about anyone’s count, the numbers are already…looking not so great for him. Again from CNN:

This time around, he’s polling at the back of the pack, routinely coming in the bottom three of the ever-expanding GOP presidential primary field.

But by telling people that they risk their very values if they don’t support him, the man is able to maintain the fragile facade of a legitimate political career. And as long as he manages to keep this up, there will always be a role for him in politics, which is profoundly dumb, because otherwise he would just be a failed columnist on a wingnut conspiracy news site (though, admittedly, the proud owner of an exceptional sweater vest collection).

There are some rumors, mere whispers, that this time around, he’s going to focus on the economy a little bit more, because — get ready to be shocked here — the economy is something that likely affects more people than the existence of same-sex marriage.

“We need trade laws. We need trade agreements. We need lower taxes. We need less regulation. But we need to focus on those who are being left behind,” Santorum told 1,400 Iowa Republicans at the party’s Lincoln Dinner.

Right on! Maybe he’s going to be a multiple-issue candidate after all! But then: Rick on foreign policy.

“Iran, enemy. Israel, friend. It is real simple.”

I like to think that this is actually his official foreign policy manifesto, in its entirety. Like he has this printed in a WordPerfect file somewhere and decided to only use the “Bulleted List” function to flesh out his ideas. You can even see his uneasy, begrudging acknowledgement with his new, populist rhetoric in his emails. He knows what the voters need to hear, he knows what legitimate candidates say, and yet, it feels so foreign and strange, and it’s just not in him. Where is my oldest saw?

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Middle class! Job creation! Taxes! But above all, once again, the most important issue — the sanctity of the family. “Life and marriage.” The rest is just details.

Your cousin who just declared a political science major and can’t stop talking about how excited she is to be rush chair next year might say, in response, that fringe candidates enter the race not to try to win but instead to “raise awareness” about a particular issue — for example, Bernie Sanders and economic issues, or Waka and legalized marijuana. Rick Santorum is just doing the same with respect to social conservatism! Fine. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, no matter how wrong those opinions are. But we been down this exact same road before with this exact same guy, and we already know that that road goes exactly nowhere and cost (according to FEC disclosures) about $23 million last time around. If he insists on giving it another comically doomed shot in 2016, he will continue to be an annoying sideshow that forces otherwise smart and capable Republican candidates to show up at town halls and say inane things like “You know what, Tom, now that you mention it, the White House has yet to emphatically deny that Jade Helm 15 is not a covert U.S. military takeover of conservative stronghold states” while middle-aged men with classic-fit Brooks Brothers oxfords tucked into stonewashed jeans nod solemnly and applaud.

And, to be fair, as a Democrat, I’m kind of selfishly okay with that! But admittedly I am also annoyed by fruitless distractions that contribute nothing to public discourse, foster a myopic public focus on irrelevant issues, and happen to cost millions of dollars, and I happen to think that sensible political debate among smart people who are truly eager to lead, whether Democrat or Republican, is generally a good idea. In 2016, the jig should be up. It’s time for Rick Santorum to shut down the donation spambots, get into responsible property management, and go away for good.

But seriously, if you have a line on a vintage Santorum sweater vest you’ll sell me…I am most certainly in the market.

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