The Meaning of Santorum

An elegy to his bid, in part in his own words.

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Mark Makela / Reuters

Former Sen. Rick Santorum announces he is suspending his bid to win the Republican nomination during a news conference in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania April 10, 2012.

Runners-up in presidential nominating races usually represent forces that are formidable but not dominant. (Which isn’t surprising, given that they’re the runners-up.) George H.W. Bush’s performance in 1980 indicated that there was still something of a moderate wing in the modern Republican Party. John McCain’s showing in 2000 suggested a GOP affection for bluntness and a heroic life story. In 2000 and 2004, Bill Bradley and Howard Dean’s brief surges underscored the enduring appeal of populism in the Democratic Party.

Rick Santorum’s suspension of his campaign on Tuesday ended the most interesting chapter thus far in the 2012 presidential race. A tough-minded conservative who believes strongly in both the economic and cultural creeds of modern conservatism, Santorum did well in large measure because he was what he was: a self-styled prophetic figure who spoke convincingly about the alleged excesses of the Obama administration because he is actually convinced that the White House is bent on a kind of big-government Orwellianism.

(MORE: The Problem with Rick Santorum’s Holy War)

That Santorum did so well in the GOP contests this year — including winning Iowa — suggests there remains a True Believer element in the Republican base that may or may not turn out in strength for Mitt Romney come November.

There’s plenty of time (God help us) for such speculation. What’s interesting right now is Santorum’s own view of the process in which he fared well, but not spectacularly.

In a new ebook by Politico’s Mike Allen and Evan Thomas that I edited (Inside the Circus: Romney, Santorum, and the GOP Race), Santorum spoke candidly about the realities of campaigning for president:

Rick Santorum was exultant, defiant, and petulant when he spoke to us on Sunday, March 25, the day after thumping Romney 49% to 26.7% in Louisiana. “To be able to pull out 50 percent of the vote in Louisiana, see a huge turnout, a big turnout compared to four years ago, I think it just shows our voters are excited, they’re far from giving up on this race,” he said to us by cell phone as he drove from Appleton, Wisconsin, to Fond du Lac (in an SUV that had replaced his pickup truck after he got Secret Service protection a month ago). Santorum compared himself to Ronald Reagan mounting a challenge to President Gerald Ford in 1976 that went all the way to the GOP convention.

He claimed that Romney was propped up by Republican establishment money — “the billionaires who are basically running the Romney campaign.” His own super PAC, the Red White and Blue Fund, “has certainly been great,” he said, but “we’re out there with a .22 versus a howitzer.” (Romney’s super PACs spent $32 million by mid-March 2012; Santorum’s spent $5.4 million by that same time.)

Santorum scorned the press for selling him short. “I hear this all the time: ‘You’re real. We trust you.’ And nobody’s writing that. Nobody’s even thinking of writing that.” He railed that the media “just accepts the Romney spin. The whole delegate count.” The media was “lazy,” he said. “You guys take the bait and play the game, and it’s bullshit” — the same expletive he used a few hours later with New York Times reporter Jeff Zeleny. He was still stewing over the media’s “gotcha” treatment of a remark he made in San Antonio the day before that voters “might as well stay with what we have” rather than vote for an “Etch A Sketch candidate.” Santorum insisted that the gaffe was really no different from what he had said in numerous speeches, that the choice between Romney and Obama was “between Tweedledum and Tweedledee.” He had protested to the “embeds,” the reporters traveling on the campaign bus, that he didn’t mean voters should favor Obama over Romney in the fall. “And every embed said to me, ‘We tried to tell our editor and they overruled us and said, “No, you’ve got to write it,”‘” griped Santorum. “Should I be paranoid and say, ‘Oh, they hate me and they want to screw me’? No,” he answered himself, calming down, but then he got going again. “The media just does things that are against their own interest,” he said. “They want a candidate that’s going to be out there and available to them and authentic and delivering what they believe in, and then when someone just happens to have a moment when they’re not as clear as they could be, they just hammer you.” Santorum was sounding defensive and aggrieved. But he had a point.

He did indeed.

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