Posted by Eric Shapiro
When moneyed interests seem to have a disproportionate influence on the the nominating process, we should commend candidates who are driven by their convictions. Regardless of his politics, Rick Santorum deserves respect for running a campaign that attracts voters with his ideas rather than his bankroll.
I suppose I should start off this article with the disclaimer that I strongly disagree with Rick Santorum on virtually every single issue. His apparent appeal to a segment of the Republican base is further evidence of that party's extremism on matters of faith, religion, family and reproductive rights. His ideology resonates with many Catholics and evangelicals, as well as blue collar workers and "traditional" families. Santorum's partisans hail his pronouncements, but to my young ears they reek of bigotry (toward the gay community), outright delusion (on matters of global warming and taxes) and bellicosity on defense issues (Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Iran!). If, by some divine miracle, he were elected president in spite of Mitt Romney's huge delegate lead, I probably wouldn't move to Canada, but I would be surely tempted!
Nevertheless, I cannot help but admire Rick Santorum's campaign for what it represents in today's post-Citizens United world: a campaign built on consistent adherence to principles, however misguided, rather than a pyramid of special interest dollars. Those on both the Right and the Left who would prefer not to see future U.S. elections as glorified bidding wars for the 1 percent should see the success of Santorum's campaign as an encouraging sign. Surpassing all early expectations, the former Pennsylvania senator has risen to challenge the front-runner, Mitt Romney, at the top of the Republican presidential pack. Thus, his campaign should serve as an inspiration for future presidential contenders who seek to challenge big money's monopoly on the political process.
Rick Santorum spent the majority of the pre-Iowa primary contest in relative anonymity, owing in part to the consensus that his drubbing in his last race for the Senate and his anemic campaign organization made him a highly implausible nominee for president. Yet, as his fellow Romney alternatives, Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich, self-destructed in the glare of the media spotlight, Santorum persevered through the long autumn months. He did this with a simple message that emphasized his steadfast social conservative values, which stand in contrast to the flip-flopping Massachusetts moderate, Mitt Romney. Barring a few short-lived Gingrich revivals (most notably following the former House speaker's victory in South Carolina), the Santorum has consistently held runner-up status for the duration of the Republican primary campaign.
A great deal of Santorum's success is undoubtedly owed to the less than stellar quality of the competition. It says a lot about the current state of the Republican Party that a presidential candidate who says John F. Kennedy makes him want to vomit and opposes birth control has emerged as the most feasible alternative to a candidate whose support rests almost entirely on his alleged electibility.
Mitt Romney's entire primary campaign has consisted of disavowing a political career's worth of moderate positions in a stunningly ineffective attempt to court the Republican Party's ultra-conservative base. It is an accepted fact on both sides of the aisle that Romney's Massachusetts healthcare plan served as a template for Obamacare. The conservatives who support Santorum may not have college educations (not a stereotype, but an exit-poll tested fact), but they're astute enough to see that the Republican front-runner is about as genuine as cubic zirconia.
In all fairness to Mitt Romney, Santorum is not the unwavering champion of Tea Party conservatism that he has promoted himself to be. For instance, he supported George W. Bush's Prescription Drug Program, held up by now-mainstream conservative radicals as a heretical concession to the tenets of the liberal Welfare State. As senator, he was a prolific distributor of earmarks and his intimate connection to lobbyists is no secret. Nevertheless, in spite of these inconsistencies, few doubt the fact that Santorum is a committed ideologue.
The self-avowed culture warrior's extreme statements regarding homosexuality and birth control, while deeply unappealing to the vast majority of the American electorate (including many conservatives), are enough to reassure his constituency of evangelical bible thumpers and "very conservative" voters that he will not abandon their pet causes should he win office. For those right-wingers with the paucity of political perspective to consider Mitt Romney little more than an "Obama Light," Santorum is the obvious choice.
It might be hard for anyone whose values are not stuck in the 19th century to stomach any praise for a closed-minded, sexist, homophobic bigot like Rick Santorum. But the fact is, he's run a hell of an effective campaign. Sure he has made some costly gaffes, but then, unlike Romney, he does not have unlimited resources and a comprehensive campaign organization to insulate him from the constant pressures of a contemporary presidential campaign.
In a previous post on this very website, I argued that the Supreme Court's 2010 decision to allow unlimited campaign contributions from Super PACs undermined the very foundation of American democracy, fully handing over the reigns of political power to the 1 percent. This is still very much the case. It seems likely that Mitt Romney, a candidate who no one really likes but whose immense fundraising advantage has repeatedly resulted in victory, will be the Republican nominee for president. Be that as it may, Rick Santorum's shocking success demonstrates that there is still a place in America for presidential candidates who earn support with ideas and personal appeal, rather than just money. Mitt Romney may be inevitable at this point, but perhaps there is reason to hope that his equivalents in future presidential races might not be as unbeatable as they seem.