What is Rick Santorum thinking? According to a wonderfully sourced report by Chris Moody at Yahoo News, Santorum thinks he has a shot at the 2016 nomination. The former senator from Pennsylvania believes he will represent the best political hopes and aspirations of all those Americans who do not want Hillary Clinton to be their president. Perhaps he even thinks he has attained the status of "next" in the GOP — the nebulous unofficial position believed to have been occupied by George H.W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney following initial attempts at the presidency that ended in failure.
Of course, this is ludicrous.
But let's air out the pro-Santorum case first. It may be stronger than we realize. Rick Santorum can excite the base of the Republican Party. He doesn't just throw the dry bones to social conservatives; he lovingly and enthusiastically tenderizes red meat, serving it to them rare, bloody, and spiced with conviction.
Santorum did win two statewide elections in Pennsylvania. That's not an easy state for the GOP, especially for a social-issues fire-eater like him. He really did come in second in the last nominating contest, and has kept loitering productively around Iowa ever since. He also has some serious financial backing, including the support of Foster Friess, who almost single-handedly got Santorum ads on the air in 2012. His presidential campaign did give him real mailing lists — not a small weapon in the campaign arsenal.
And Santorum does have one quality that jaundiced political observers frequently miss: Unlike other Republican candidates, he can speak naturally to middle- and working-class voters in the GOP. His populism may not have much policy substance, but the voters most excited by him were some of the very same ones Romney needed to win in Ohio.
When he does announce his run, all of the above points will be rehearsed as his strengths and "upsides" in a thousand articles.
It's hogwash. Rick Santorum is a political stiff whose entire 2016 campaign is premised on a historical accident: He was the last clown out of the anti-Romney clown car in 2012. His last statewide election in Pennsylvania was a 59–41 percent disaster for him, a politician swallowed up whole by the anti-Bush, anti–Iraq War wave of discontent.
On the campaign trail, Santorum's true conviction is often his most unappealing feature. He believes so much in the power of his reasoning and in the truth of his conclusions, that he often attempts to argue his hecklers into agreeing with him. In town-hall environments he becomes the caffeinated leader of your college's Henry Newman Center, debating theology with you until you fall asleep. He gives people the uncomfortable impression that he doesn't possess ideas, but that his ideas possess him.
After a decade and a half of war, his Crusader-style foreign policy is too aggressive, too loud, and too medieval, even for the GOP. After being ousted by the electorate for his hawkishness, he spent years hyping every threat in the Middle East as presaging the return of a unified Islamic caliphate. He seems disturbed and shaken by the rise of a libertarian strain in his party, and he will seek to offend this bloc of voters regularly.
Santorum has no executive experience, and he is not particularly accomplished as a legislator, even though he had the benefit of some seniority. Chris Christie, Rand Paul, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, and a host of other potential candidates are also not contaminated by the Bush era in the way that Santorum is. Friess and the mailing lists are not enough to overcome his deficiencies as a candidate and the strengths of his opponents.
Personally, I like Santorum even while I loathe parts of his political agenda. He is warm, funny in his own way, and he is deeply genuine. The way he has cared for his daughter Bella, who was born with trisomy 18, is heroic — and countercultural. In an age when the shade of eugenics suggests to us that a life like hers (and the one her parents live while caring for her) is not worth living, I find his actions and his story moving and important. Another Santorum run would be worth it, if only to give him a platform to talk about the dignity and joy of human life, even human life ravaged by disease and deformity.
But Rick Santorum is not "next" for the Republican Party, at least not one that wants to win the White House. His prominence in 2014 is a product of a bizarre, 10-car pileup in the last GOP presidential primary.
Santorum is admirable as a father and advocate for the disabled — no small thing in this life. But admirable is not electable.