I confess I didn’t take the idea of a Rick Santorum presidential campaign in 2016 all that seriously, until I read conservative Catholic writer Michael Brendan Dougherty’s article debunking Santorum’s presidential ambitions. Writes Dougherty:
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.
First of all, that advantage Dougherty cites — an ability to “speak naturally to middle- and working-class voters” — will be more important in 2016 than ever before. Second, a candidate whose “ideas possess him” might actually appeal to an electorate craving genuineness, as opposed to a candidate repeating focus-grouped, 99.44-percent-pure-Luntzed catch phrases.
But, third and most important, the political landscape changes. Yes, it’s ridiculous to think “the last clown out of the anti-Romney clown car in 2012” could win in 2016. It’s just as ridiculous as the notion that, after John Kerry’s defeat in 2004, the Democrats could win in 2008 with an unapologetic lefty. Remember how, in late 2004 and early 2005, Democrats were falling over themselves desperately trying to figure out how they could win “values voters”? But it turned out that the voters’ dissatisfaction with Republican governance was intense enough to get them to vote in 2008 for a Democratic presidential nominee who was even more liberal than the 2004 nominee. Does anyone think that Obamacare, and the Obama-era economy, will be so strong by 2016 that voters will be happier with Democrats in 2016 than they were with Republicans in 2008?
I disagree with Santorum on some of his key issue stands — e.g., his opposition to gay marriage, and his denunciation of contraception and of the very concept of “sexual liberty” — but it is not easy for me to envision these preferences of his being translated into practical policy changes. I am impressed with the vigor and eloquence of his defense of the unborn, and I hope that if he were president, he could help reopen our national discussion of abortion — but even on this, I suspect that Santorum (and other politicians) will play a secondary role, as the culture moves, on its own, toward a more pro-life view. Meanwhile, there are other issues on which he could, realistically, push for positive change (taxes, health care, and so on).
Dougherty admits that he finds Santorum “admirable” in many ways:
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.
Nonetheless, Dougherty’s conclusion is that Santorum is “unelectable.” Which may or may not be right; but recent experience suggests to me that it’s far too early to make that judgment. I join Dougherty in thinking that a Santorum 2016 run would be worthwhile, even if I end up supporting some other candidate; and I urge people to read Dougherty’s article, which gives a sense of Santorum as a man in full, even as it discourages his presidential prospects.