Instead of listing all the reasons why Rick Santorum might become the Republican nominee for president, let’s skip over several news cycles to that inevitable moment when Mitt Romney is about to become the Republican nominee for president. By that point, those qualities of Santorum’s that seem so positive and compelling now will be seen for what they really are: dead weight.
Let’s take them one by one:
Positive: Santorum’s Christian piety is a refreshing alternative to Gingrich’s personal corruption and Romney’s seemingly infinite malleability. The guy really believes what he says!
Negative reality: The guy really believes what he says! The breathtakingly low turnout in Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado meant that the angriest and most alienated sector of the Republican party went to the polls: the white evangelicals and Tea Partiers. Though the Tea Partiers seemingly care more about the deficit than about abortion and same-sex marriage, they thrill to Santorum’s attacks on liberal elites. But for the precious swing voters who will decide the election and who sat out Tuesday’s empty political exercises, Santorum’s narrowness and fanaticism are not inclusive enough of their own interests. When it’s mostly fundamentalist Protestants who care about the Catholic issue of birth control, you know you don’t have an issue with permanent appeal.
Positive: By harping on the culture wars, Santorum has found an answer to one of this political season’s sharper ironies. While people care most about jobs and the economy, rhetoric about jobs and the economy tends to be dull and uninspiring, especially from the Republican side. People can talk until they’re blue in the face about competing historical versions of conservatism, but the only economic idea that matters to modern conservatives is low taxes. And calls for lower taxes are nothing to march to. Existential issues like abortion and individual rights and sexuality, on the other hand, hit that sweet memoir-strain in the culture. You hear Santorum rail against homosexuality or sexual promiscuity and you begin to think about your own style of living. And if you’re unemployed, it’s a lot more cathartic to hear someone thundering in defense of your personal choices, than speaking vapidly about tax rates and corporate investment.
Negative reality: The culture wars are not what they used to be. Particularly among the lower-class whites that make up the evangelicals and other disaffected voters momentarily rallying around Santorum, the family structure is crumbling. Teen sex and teen pregnancy are rampant. Drug use is skyrocketing. Divorce is proliferating. Just about everyone is looking at Internet porn. It was one thing to defend family values when there was something like the traditional nuclear family. It’s another thing to rant about family values when the traditional family is becoming extinct. A few months or even weeks down the road, all but the most diehard Santorum supporters will realize, on the visceral level, that his rhetoric has not caught up to their reality.
Positive: In an age of confusion and uncertainy, when everything solid is either melting into air or being compressed into the latest, about-to-be-obsolete gadget, Santorum sounds bracingly like Savonarola.
Negative reality: Santorum may sound like Savonarola, but he comes across as Little Nell. Whereas the touchstone of conservative masculinity and leadership was Ronald Reagan, with his indefatigable, unruffled smiling composure, Santorum is a whiner. He is always complaining about being behind, about being drowned out by the frontrunners, about not having enough money, about being neglected. He just doesn’t seem presidential. He gives the impression of an ineffectual man trapped in a dream of power, for which he is completely unprepared.
Positive: “Positive” is the wrong word for this. The unspeakable sadness of Santorum’s stillborn child, and the unimaginable dread surrounding his daughter, who may not have long to live, contrasts him with Romney, who seems like he would not give you ice in the winter. Such suffering makes Santorum’s piety seem real and indisputable. Which brings us to the last comparison.
Positive: Santorum does indeed seem to be an authentic, believing Christian.
Negative reality: In his callousness toward the poor, his intolerance of gays, his compassion for the high profits of drug companies, his love of war, he represents the ruthless, remorseless, unworldly side of Christianity. True, real Christians fare badly among the so-called Christian right: incredibly, when Mick Huckabee was discovered to have practiced Christian values and pardoned a murderer, he was excoriated by his very own white evangelical supporters. Smite one cheek, then smite the other. But even worse than his hardness toward society’s unfortunate and unconventional, Santorum has committed the worst sins of contemporary political life. A passion for big government. A lust for earmarks. Payback to campaign contributors. And Senate votes that seem to have a pricetag on them. Santorum the professional politician will have to say a lot of Hail Marys for his corruption-rife years in the Senate. The problem is that the Protestants who are voting for him now don’t believe in the redemptive powers of penance.