article

06.07.11

Rick Santorum Needs a Miracle

While Romney, Pawlenty and Gingrich need a lesson in authenticity, newly minted 2012 presidential candidate Rick Santorum's "authentic" self turns off large swaths of voters. Matt Latimer on why he should—but won't—tone it down.

It is hard to muster enthusiasm for a presidential contender whose best-case scenario for winning begins with Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, that guy from Utah, and every Republican governor in America flying over the Bermuda Triangle during an electromagnetic storm. But former Sen. Rick Santorum had the guts to announce for president this week, so he deserves his due. Is there any way in the world that this guy can win the nomination? Eh, maybe.

This year voters are in an authenticity mood; they’ve seen America’s economy nearly ruined by the same old crowd in Washington and long for someone different. They have discerned how creepy it is that most of our elected leaders—from Nancy Pelosi to John Boehner to Barack Obama to George W. Bush—sound exactly the same. It’s almost as if a handful of Washington consultants from both political parties have been making millions of dollars simply by photocopying and distributing the same clichés: “Change the way Washington does business… strengthen Social Security and Medicare… remember the neglected middle class… get tough on spending… tell people the truth… bring people together… no more politics as usual… stop all the bickering…work across party lines… find real solutions… get things done…r eformer with results.”

Yet politicos remain convinced that they need their consultants. After all, who else would tell Romney how to muss his hair to make it look less “perfect,” or show Pawlenty how to dress like a tough-looking Westerner for his campaign website, or encourage Newt to smile like a creepy undertaker and blame his every gaffe on the “elite” out to destroy him?

Perhaps this mentality explains better than anything why voters have seemed unusually drawn of late to the occasionally—what’s the word—offbeat among political leaders: your Trumps, your Sharptons, your Ron Pauls. They are so sick of being fed the same pabulum that they’ll try anything else, whatever the aftertaste.

If only the more mainstream candidates could figure this out. Consider, for example, if instead of pretending that he was Barry Goldwater III in 2008, Romney had instead told voters, “Look, I’m not your standard ideologue. I’m a pragmatic guy with some conservative instincts who tried to do something, however imperfectly, about health care and who knows a thing or two about how our economy works. And if you don’t like it, vote for somebody else.”

Or what if Newt had said, “I know I can rub people the wrong way and I’ve made a lot of stupid mistakes in my time. But I’ve tried to learn from them. I’m an ideas guy, even my enemies say so, and isn’t that what elections are supposed to be about?”

Or if Tim Pawlenty, instead of trying to come off as the reincarnation of Paul Bunyan, said, “I guess you could say I’m a nerdy guy. But you know, I’ve got a pretty good record in Minnesota. I don’t try to alienate people for a living, and I think I know how to get some things accomplished if you’ll give me a chance.” (That strategy, by the way, worked recently in Michigan, where voters elected a governor who billed himself bluntly as “one tough nerd.”)

A lack of [tact and subtlety], Dallas patriarch Jock Ewing advised his son, J.R., “turns competitors into enemies and enemies into fanatics.” That is definitely what has happened to Santorum.

All of which is a long digression back to Santorum, the exceedingly rare politician who might be a little too “authentic” for his own good. I first learned of the man when I worked in the Senate as a young pugilistic conservative. I admired those who stood out from the rather milquetoast GOP conference—and still do. The youngish Santorum ruffled feathers, pushed his way into the leadership, and annoyed a lot of people, often, it seemed, unnecessarily. (As a fellow senator once put it, “Santorum—that’s Latin for asshole.”)

That didn’t bother me. But what did become a problem was that Santorum, a devout Catholic with sincerely held beliefs, somehow became the person who inflexibly imposed his own moral judgments on everyone else, the kind of guy that people, even if they agree with him, don’t really like. Most infamously, he seemed to equate homosexuality with “man on child” and “man on dog” sex, while appearing to explain the actions of Catholic priests accused of pedophilia by blaming the “sick” culture of liberal Boston.

He offended some women by telling them the use of birth control was “harmful” and “irresponsible,” saying abortion rights could be equated with slavery, and making comments that seemed to imply that women worked outside the home as a means of “social affirmation.”

Republican voters are a socially conservative—and also savvy—bunch; they tend to be skeptical of candidates who simply can’t get along with others. When Santorum stood for election to a third term in Pennsylvania, the voters, including a number in the GOP, soundly rejected him.

How, then, do you advise a presidential candidate to be his “authentic” self when that very self turns off large swaths of voters? Maybe you can’t. But for starters, I’d tell him to do what any normal person does when in a moral quandary: Watch an episode of Dallas. On the very first episode of that venerable program, Jock Ewing gave his son, J.R., a tart-tongued lesson about tact and subtlety. “A lack of it,” the patriarch advised, “turns competitors into enemies and enemies into fanatics.” That is definitely what has happened to Santorum, whose very name has even been turned into a loathsome adjective by those who hated him.

Maybe the senator should recognize the problem of running for president as a symbol of moral perfection, always a dangerous gambit for a politician, and make a special effort to exercise some humility in his dealings with his fellow citizens. To appreciate the art of subtlety in politics. Alas, Santorum, who seems a strictly Waltons type of guy, probably would have supported a V-chip to spare us from the “sick culture” of Dallas in the first place—and then castigated those who dared to watch. Which brings us back to that plane over the Bermuda Triangle…