Former Senator Rick Santorum formally launched his bid for the White House today. Given that Santorum's last run for reelection resulted in a crushing 17-point defeat, and given that his poll numbers are still in the low single digits in spite of his having been running a de facto campaign for the past year and a half, it would seem that Santorum's race is mostly a sign of the self-deceiving wishful thinking that overtakes people who believe they are meant to be president -- or in Santorum's case, who believe God truly wants them to be president.
Indeed, Santorum's campaign has already won him enough mockery that Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Tony Norman recently dubbed him "the Rodney Dangerfield of American politics," saying he gets "as little respect as support."
Part of Santorum's problem is simply that he comes across to many people as annoyingly self-righteous. Norman writes, "His biggest problem is that he reminds everyone, including Republicans, of the annoying kid in Sunday school who memorizes all 66 books of the Bible so he can recite them in reverse order for the old ladies at church." In 2009, as Santorum's plans to run were becoming more apparent, journalist Matthew Cooper wrote, "My favorite Santorum anecdote actually comes from Bob Kerrey. After Santorum denounced Sen. Mark Hatfield, the Oregon Republican, for his opposition to the balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, the Nebraska Democrat was asked what he thought. 'Santorum, that's Latin for a--hole.'"
Fans on the Far Right
In spite of Santorum's huge negatives, he has his cheerleaders among right-wing activists and pundits who think he could still emerge from the unimpressive GOP pack.
Last month, right-wing Catholic activist Keith Fournier published a column that was essentially a mash note, declaring Santorum the winner of the South Carolina debate, calling his demeanor "Kennedy-esque," and gushing that Santorum's "courage to lead" is "what this Nation needs."
In February, columnist George Will praised Santorum as a "relentless ethicist" and said the GOP needs someone who can energize social conservatives who "are feeling neglected and are looking for someone like Santorum." To those who thought his loss would make him unelectable, Will asks, "Well, was Richard Nixon defunct after losing the California gubernatorial race in 1962?" I wonder if Santorum welcomed that comparison.
In January, when Santorum was criticized for slamming Obama's support for abortion in racial terms -- saying, "I find it almost remarkable for a black man to say 'now we are going to decide who are people and who are not people'" -- The National Review's Kathryn Jean Lopez praised Santorum for raising the issue of abortion in the black community.
Love him or hate him, let's be clear about Rick Santorum. He doesn't hold back. He doesn't mince words and conservative Christians and Catholics find this quality to be his best attribute. If and when he dives into the 2012 GOP mosh pit, he's going to be the guy that won't hold back and in the process he'll put some of these other 2012 contenders on the spot by bringing up issues that everybody whispers about but rarely talks about in public.
Hard Right Record
Santorum's far-right rhetoric and policy positions are what keep hope alive among some of his supporters. He is campaigning as a hard-right candidate who can appeal to every stripe of conservative. And he certainly has the record to back up that claim.
Speaking to a Tea Party gathering in February, Santorum embraced an extreme view of the constitutional separation of powers and the role of the federal judiciary, reportedly saying that Congress has the power and the right to declare what is constitutional or not. He said Congress has the power to disband the federal courts and that "I would sign a bill tomorrow to eliminate the 9th Circuit [Court of Appeals]. That court is rogue. It's a pox on the western part of our country." He told the Conservative Political Action Conference in February that "America belongs to God" and the judiciary has no right to "redefine" life or marriage.
He's a fierce critic of federal health care reform legislation, saying it will "destroy the country," portraying it as the equivalent of drug dealing and telling a group of Christians that getting hooked on health care would make them "less than what God created you to be." He has said that "if Obamacare is actually implemented," then "America as we know it will be no more."
Today, after he announced his candidacy, Santorum declared that American troops at D-Day had been fighting for Rep. Paul Ryan's plan to effectively end Medicare. "Those Americans risked everything so they could make that decision on their health care plan," he said.
He pushes the Tea Party's small-government ideology, saying the problems in the housing industry will be resolved by "getting regulators to back off" and letting the markets work their magic. Similarly, he says the answer to creating jobs is to get rid of all the government intervention that he believes is strangling businesses -- health care reform, financial regulation, the Environmental Protection Agency, and more.
In a bid to salvage his sinking 2006 reelection campaign, Santorum turned to bashing immigration reform and "amnesty" for illegal immigrants.
Santorum has a social issues record to make the Religious Right cheer. He made a name for himself on the national scene with his attacks on gay rights, most notably in a 2003 interview comparing gay relationships with "man-on-dog" sex. (In the same interview he argued that the Constitution does not protect a right to privacy. Recently he said that allowing loving gay couples to adopt children is "trying to defy nature" and should be illegal, as should gay marriage. He says that the Obama administration's decision to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act in federal court meant that the "free exercise of religion will be eviscerated."
Although, while in the Senate, Santorum supported the occasional pro-choice Republican, he calls Roe v. Wade a "monstrosity" and supports criminalization of abortion, which he says is the reason Social Security is in trouble. He backs right-wing attacks on funding for Planned Parenthood's family planning services, actively taking part in the right-wing propaganda campaign against Planned Parenthood. Santorum has slammed the Griswold decision, in which the Supreme Court recognized a constitutional right to privacy and overturned a state ban on contraception, as a "constitutional wrecking ball."
Santorum gave Religious Right activists a powerful tool for pushing religion into public school classrooms when he sponsored an amendment to the "No Child Left Behind" law that encouraged the teaching of intelligent design in science classes. The amendment, written in part by the creationist Discovery Institute, became a force behind creationists' bogus "teach the controversy" strategy. Santorum wrote in 2002 that "Intelligent Design is a legitimate scientific theory that should be taught in science classes." Scientists and courts disagree.
Santorum has been a severe critic of Islam from his perch at the "America's Enemies" program at the right-wing Ethics and Public Policy Center. He says Islam is incompatible with western civilization because Shariah is both a civil code and a religious code. But he also says of Christians that "it is our obligation" to make civil law in America "comport with God's laws."
Santorum has tried to get attention to his desire to be the second Catholic president by slamming the first, saying he was "appalled" by John F. Kennedy's "radical" support for the separation of church and state - a centerpiece of Kennedy's vision of America. Speaking of the Kennedys, Santorum criticized church officials for praising former senator Ted Kennedy at his funeral, saying there was "no excuse" for it and arguing that it was harmful to send the message that it was okay for Catholic politicians to dissent from church teachings.
Although Santorum has been quick to slam progressive Catholics for not hewing closely enough to the doctrine of Church hierarchy, he's shown no compunction in casting aside Church teaching when it conflicts with his extreme ideology, as he did when repeatedly supporting "enhanced interrogation" techniques like waterboarding -- which has been clearly labeled "torture" and "an intrinsic evil" by the Catholic Church.
Santorum blamed the church's sex abuse scandal on the liberal political culture of Boston:
Priests, like all of us, are affected by culture. When the culture is sick, every element in it becomes infected. While it is no excuse for this scandal, it is no surprise that Boston, a seat of academic, political and cultural liberalism in America, lies at the center of the storm.
Obama as Enemy
At least one columnist has suggested that Santorum is angling for a VP spot, where he would serve as the GOP campaign's attack dog. He has repeatedly demonstrated his willingness to savage President Obama in the most extreme terms. Obama he says, does not have "a love of this country and an understanding of the basic values and wants and desires of its people." If Obama is reelected, he says, "Democracy and freedom will disappear." Santorum says Obama's talk about his faith is "phony" because the president, like other liberal Christians, has "abandoned Christendom" and has no "right to claim it." In fact, he says, Obama and "the left" are actively seeking to "destroy the family and destroy the Church" because that is the only way they can "be successful in getting socialism to be accepted in this country and that's what their objective is." During the 2008 campaign, Santorum was declared one of Keith Olbermann's "Worst Persons in the World" for continuing to spread the right-wing lie that Obama "won't wear the American flag pin."
When President Obama criticized cable news, Santorum ridiculously portrayed it as a prelude to tyrannical censorship: "This reminds me of what Hugo Chavez is doing down in Venezuela, trying to shut down the voice of opposition in the media." He says Obama "doesn't believe in the foundational principles that made this country great, which is limited government and free people." He said his own grandfather came from fascist Italy to a country that would allow him to be free: "That's the kind of change we need in Washington, DC."
In an April 28, 2011 foreign policy speech at the National Press Club, Santorum declared that "unlike President Obama I believe we were a great country even before the Great Society Programs of the 1960s." He went on to say, "Freedom has been our watchword, our anchor and our moral guide for nearly every cause both here and abroad. But today we have lost this mission because our president doesn't believe in it." After another (now-GOP-requisite) slam on Obama for not believing in American exceptionalism, Santorum slammed Obama for not doing more to support protesters in Iran: "We sided with evil because our president believes our enemies are legitimately aggrieved and thus we have no standing to intervene." Last year Santorum reportedly told a Pennsylvania crowd "that Obama seeks to make the United States like Europe, a continent whose citizens have turned their backs on faith and grown selfish, and where governments bestow rights upon the citizenry, rather than a place where all are born with God-given rights."
Violating Reagan's 11th Commandment
One reason Santorum might not be very popular in spite of his reliably right-wing record is that he is a habitual violator of Ronald Reagan's 11th Commandment. Santorum seems quite happy to speak ill of his fellow Republicans. He has slammed Romney as "Obama's running mate" (a reference to Romney's support for health care reform in Massachusetts) and criticized Newt Gingrich for criticizing Paul Ryan.
During the 2008 campaign, he repeatedly criticized John McCain. After pledging that he would never support McCain, he tepidly endorsed him after Sarah Palin joined the ticket. Santorum even wrote a snide column after McCain's loss predicting (wrongly) that McCain would seek historical redemption by leading the charge in Congress to help Obama move his agenda.
One of Santorum's less-successful slams on a fellow Republican came when he criticized Sarah Palin for not attending the Conservative Political Action Conference and suggested that her duties as a mom to five kids may have made her too busy. Palin in turn suggested that Santorum might be a "knuckle-dragging Neanderthal."
Santorum sees politics in spiritual terms. He says that government gets bigger and more intrusive without a "moral consensus" to guide society. In 2008 he told faculty and students at right-wing Ave Maria University, "This is not a political war, it is not a cultural war; it's a spiritual war." Santorum suggested that his opponents were agents of Satan: "The Father of Lies has his sights on what you would think the Father of Lies would have his sights on -- a good, decent, powerful, influential country: the United States of America." He warned the students that if they signed up for God's army, "you'll be ridiculed and you'll lose most if not every one of your battles. But you know who's going to win in the end, so you warrior on happily."
The Campaign Limps Along
Last spring, Santorum said he saw "an opening for someone who can unite the various primary factions -- economic libertarians, party establishment types and cultural conservatives," according to CBS News' Marc Ambinder. But after more than a year of campaigning, Santorum is polling at just two percent among Republicans.
Santorum is unfazed, saying that his poor showing in national polls is only because he's focusing on important early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, where he won a GOP straw poll earlier this year. Though to keep that win in perspective, Santorum was the only candidate to show up to the GOP dinner and took 150 votes out of the 408 cast.
Cross posted on The Huffington Post
It's hard to predict what could happen in the GOP primary, but at this point, Santorum's barely-limping-along campaign seems in need of divine intervention.