Republicans running for commander in grief

Have you ever seen a glummer or grouchier bunch of presidential aspirants than the current GOP crop? You’d be working those frown lines, too, I guess, if you thought, as Rick Santorum does, that this year’s race will decide “whether we will be a free people.” Or believed, as Michele Bachmann told Sean Hannity on Monday, that Iran might go nuclear before Inauguration Day.

Of course, Ron Paul is as cataclysmic as ever — promising prunes for everybody if he’s elected: When he puts the federal budget on a trillion-dollar diet, “people say everybody will suffer,” he tells supporters. But “they should have to suffer.” Perhaps it’s understandable, as The Washington Post’s Nia-Malika Henderson wrote this week, that Paul’s apocalyptic message is newly popular in a country exhausted by years of war and financial struggle. On Tuesday, Paul practically dared Iowans to throw away their caucus-night votes, admitting that even he doesn’t see himself as president. You know a guy is hard to please when he’s down on Abraham Lincoln. (Abe dragged us into a “senseless war,” in Paul’s view, and ruled with an “iron fist.”)

But Paul isn’t the only candidate hawking “midnight in America.” The notion that the sunniest guy always wins probably will still hold true — but the fact that charisma-challenged Mitt Romney is that guy threatens the cliche that voters go for the candidate with whom they’d most like to have a beer, or at least can stand to watch on TV without having to lower the volume.

Santorum spent months trying to guilt Iowans into supporting him. Not without reason, he seemed aggrieved during candidate debates, using some of his precious airtime to complain about receiving no airtime. In interviews, he grumbled about not being interviewed. He’s right that Iowa voters have known for some time that he is more conservative than Romney and more accomplished than Bachmann or Rick Perry, yet he wasn’t their first choice, or their second.

“I was the skunk at the garden party,’’ he says of his time in Washington, on account of his opposition to abortion rights. He frequently uses martyrdom language, saying he has bullet scars to show for his battles on behalf of conservative principles. This “too pure to win on the world’s terms” ethos is deeply ingrained in conservative culture, not to speak of Catholicism. But martyrs do not get invited out a lot; now that Santorum is on top, will he be able to adjust?

In the last day alone, he called Paul “disgusting,” and Newt “Keepin’ It Positive” Gingrich called Romney a “liar.” This joylessness is catching, too; a Perry ad likening Santorum’s behavior to that of a pig at a trough riled even the the unflappable Greta van Susteren. On Monday, the Fox News Channel personality told Perry pointedly: “That’s very curious you say your friend Rick Santorum. . . . One of the things your friend Rick Santorum has gotten is an ad from your campaign that’s headlined ‘Why are the pigs so happy?’ I don’t make references to pigs about friends.” (Perry’s attempt to pretend this was a compliment was funny, though: “In Iowa they love pigs,’’ he insisted.)

Gingrich, who has a long history of bomb-throwing and umbrage-taking, had pledged to stick to the high road but rethought that strategy after being bashed by a bunch of negative ads; when his head stopped spinning, he whined that Romney ought to call off the PACs with which he is not allowed to communicate. For good measure, he called his rival a big ol’ faker who has replaced the “real Mitt’’ with “a poll-driven, consultant-guided version that goes around with talking points.’’

(Unlike Perry, Romney didn’t give a “Who, me?” response, but laughed and said welcome to politics. Also welcome to life after the Supreme Court decision named after Citizens United, the outfit that produced Gingrich’s John Paul II movie.)

Both Santorum and Gingrich have cried in public recently — Santorum when discussing his newborn son Gabriel, who survived only hours in 1996, and his 3-year-old daughter, Bella, who has the genetic disorder Trisomy 18; and Gingrich when speaking about his late mother, who he said suffered from bipolar disease and depression.

This year, those candidates who do have a more traditionally upbeat presidential demeanor have gone nowhere or have been to the mountaintop and fallen off; Jon Huntsman never caught on, Perry came off as hapless, and Herman Cain proved that sunny only goes so far.

Not just the American but the global economy has been through one crisis after another in recent years, and the “hope and change” message that resonated in ’08 wouldn’t have the same power today, no matter who presided over the past few years.

But as angry as voters are, and as much as they say they want to be leveled with, they still want reassurance in a leader, too. The Republican nominee, whoever he or he is, will not win independent votes with surliness and name-calling; that’s what Super PACs are for.

She the People is a new Post blog written from a woman’s perspective. It is anchored by political reporter Melinda Henneberger, founder of Politics Daily and its Woman Up blog.

Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011.
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