02.23.12

Rick Santorum in CNN Debate: Not Crazy, Just a Conventional Politician

Santorum didn’t come off as a nutty religious fanatic in the CNN debate, but as a typical politician who compromised his way through an unexceptional congressional career—which may hurt his candidacy more.

The 20th GOP debate undoubtedly damaged Rick Santorum’s tenuous status as frontrunner, but not at all in the way that nearly everyone expected.

According to conventional analysis, the biggest danger for the former Pennsylvania senator involved exposure as a strident religious fanatic self-destructively obsessed with issues of little importance to most voters and utterly unwilling (or unable) to mask his disdain for contraception, women in combat, prenatal testing, state support for public education, gays in the military, Obama’s “phony theology,” satanic plots against America, and other pervasive features of 21st-century life.

Stalwart supporters of Mitt Romney ardently hoped for a full meltdown—with a flummoxed Santorum babbling incoherent pieties like the humiliated William Jennings Bryan character at the end of his testimony in Inherit the Wind. Even better, they fantasized that he might throw himself onto the stage and begin writhing and flailing while speaking in tongues—even though such demonstrations of the gifts of the Spirit have never been approved by the Vatican (even for Ash Wednesday).

Fortunately for Santorum, he avoided that sort of disaster—successfully skirting all suspicions that he qualified as a faith-based fruitcake far outside the American mainstream and obviously unready for the White House. Surprisingly, neither CNN moderator John King nor any of Righteous Rick’s rivals made a real effort to nail him on some of the more controversial quotations that have undermined the Santorum surge during the last week.

King did read an emailed question from CNNPolitics.com that asked: “Since birth control is the latest hot topic, which candidate believes in birth control, and if not, why?”

This query drew lusty boos from the passionately Republican crowd, allowing Newt Gingrich to offer one of his patented and predictably effective denunciations of media bias. “I just want to point out,” he snarled, “you did not once in the 2008 campaign, not once did anybody in the elite media, ask why Barack Obama voted in favor of legalizing infanticide … if we're going to have a debate about who the extremist is on these issues, it is President Obama, who as a state senator voted to protect doctors who killed babies who survived the abortion. It is not the Republicans.”

The debate won’t lead prospective Santorum voters to switch, but it may leave many of them shrugging and disillusioned.

To try to refocus the question for Santorum, King cited the candidate’s notorious promise while campaigning in Iowa that he would talk about what “no president has talked about before—the dangers of contraception.”

Instead of confronting the issue directly and repeating his disapproval of an intimate precaution employed at one time or another by nearly all American couples, Santorum spoke movingly about the perils of bearing children outside of marriage—as though birth control caused the rising rate of out-of-wedlock birth, rather than representing at least part of the solution. The former senator never managed to make the important conservative point that contraception, by separating sex from its natural consequences, undeniably encouraged more irresponsible erotic adventures. Nevertheless, none of his competitors on stage took note of his refusal to speak directly about “the dangers of contraception” that he had previously decried, so his evasions caused confusion (at worst) but nothing in the way of marginalization.

At no point in the proceedings, in fact, did Santorum live up to the prevailing media caricature of a ranting, reckless True Believer, ready to take unyielding and moralistic positions on social issues regardless of the impact on his campaign. In fact, many viewers of the latest debate may come away wondering whether Santorum truly believes in anything—after a series of tortured and unpersuasive explanations of contradictions between his current and past positions.

After exhaustive exploration of Mitt Romney’s numerous flip-flops in the previous 19 debates, most of the attention in Arizona focused on Santorum switches on earmarks, No Child Left Behind, deficit spending, Arlen Specter’s worthiness for reelection, and, most painfully, federal funding for Planned Parenthood.

The single weakest moment for any candidate came after Ron Paul attacked Santorum for voting for a big appropriation bill that included money for Planned Parenthood. The Texas gadfly insisted that “you voted for birth-control pills. And you literally, because funds are fungible, you literally voted for abortions, because Planned Parenthood gets the money.”

After a lengthy, mostly unintelligible explanation of how Santorum tried to balance the obnoxious Title X (funding Planned Parenthood) with the virtuous Title XX (funding abstinence), Romney brought up a previous statement in which Righteous Rick spoke proudly about his past support of appropriations for birth control as a means of assuring voters he’d do nothing to interfere with their access to contraception.

This time, Santorum unsteadily responded, “I think I was making it clear that, while I have a personal moral objection to it, even though I don't support it, that I voted for bills that included it.” The Arizona audience exploded in noisy boos, while attentive Romney staffers no doubt noted the echoes of John Kerry’s unforgettable (and politically fatal) declaration that “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.” If Romney’s super PAC fails to use the even more damning “I don’t support it/I voted for bills that included it” in devastating rapid-response commercials in Michigan and Arizona, they might as well return all the millions they’ve collected so far.

In short, Santorum didn’t look like a fervent, courageous, conviction politician but like a typical trimmer who’d spent three House terms and two Senate terms bobbing and weaving and compromising his way through an unexceptional congressional career.

The good news for the former senator is that he didn’t come across as crazy; the bad news is that he seemed utterly conventional—which may hurt his candidacy even more. The debate won’t lead prospective Santorum voters to switch to Romney (or Paul or Gingrich), but it may leave many of them shrugging and disillusioned, stricken with the deflated enthusiasm that depresses the turnout for their imperfect champion.

Romney, meanwhile, despite a generally self-assured and effective performance, missed several precious opportunities to close the sale with wary conservatives and to make decisive progress to early victory.

The excellent final question from King asked each of the contenders, “What is the biggest misconception about you in the public debate right now?”

Paul made the most of the opening to denounce the idea that he couldn’t win against Obama. Gingrich ignored the question altogether and talked about his achievements as House speaker.

Romney similarly dodged the challenge—even when the moderator tried to bring him back to the subject of “misconceptions.” Instead, the candidate offered a robotic recitation (for seemingly the thousandth time) of his record as a successful businessman, leader of the Olympics, and governor.

What a shame that he never touched the prevalent idea that he doesn’t care deeply, passionately about the issues—or that he lacks all conviction! How sad that he failed to address the widespread notion that as a fabulously wealthy and fortunate son of privilege, he can’t connect with the travails of ordinary citizens—a notion he convincingly debunked a few days ago in an interview with the Detroit Free Press with reference to his selfless and dedicated work with all manner of humanity as a lay leader in his church. He might even have referenced his struggles alongside his wife as she continues her gallant battle against life-threatening illness—an experience that gave him his most touching, human, and humane moment in the Florida debates.

Instead, the Mitt machine droned on about how “I believe that kind of background and skill is what is essential to restore the American promise,” virtually ensuring that the campaign itself will drone on inconclusively for several weeks more.

At another point, Governor Romney (who remains by far the most likely winner of the GOP nomination) gave another puzzling demonstration of his peculiar problem with making a visceral, populist connection with the voters he needs for victory.

Moderator King returned from a break to ask each of the candidates for a single word (with no “caveats” or “explanations”) to define himself.

Paul appropriately and cleverly offered “consistent.” Santorum self-flatteringly suggested “courage.” Gingrich provided the most baffling choice: “cheerful.” Did he worry that “visionary” might sound too “grandiose”?

And Romney? He chose “resolute”—a word many voters won’t even understand.

Why not “capable” or “competent” or, counterintuitively, “passionate”—answering those who worry about the intensity of his commitment. “Intense” itself also might have helped.

Instead, we’re left with resolute—as we trudge resolutely forward through Michigan and Arizona next week, and then Super Tuesday the week after that, as the wearying combination of soap opera and reality show that is the GOP contest offers enough curious twists and turns to overload a season of Desperate White Housewives.