There was hearty debate earlier in the primary as to whether there was a “New Newt,” or in fact whether Newt Gingrich remained hobbled by the same defects that had been his undoing throughout his career — egomania, lack of focus, and unprincipled partisanship in service of self-promotion. It turned out there was no New Newt, and he in fact crashed and burned. As we argued from the onset of that debate, people don’t change their basic personality late in life, so it should have come as no shock that there is only one Newt, one not able to exercise personal or intellectual discipline.
The same is true of Rick Santorum. Big time. In a must-read piece by Jason Cherkis and Sam Stein, we are reminded: “Interviews with more than a dozen former aides, adversaries, and close observers of the ’06 [Pennsylvania Senate] contest, however, show that important lessons — about the need to stay on message, convey warmth to voters and appear less patronizing — haven’t been learned at all. The senator who stumbled so badly six years ago, many say, is the same candidate now locked in a hotly-contested race for the Republican presidential nomination: pugnacious and unscripted, talented at retail politics, but often his own worst enemy.”
In obscurity in Iowa and as the lightly scrutinized underdog he for a time able to curb his worst impulses. But the inner Rick — angry, petulant and sanctimonious peaked out. The report recalls:
In 2005, Santorum had gone to the bedside of a brain-damaged Terri Schiavo in the face of widespread public criticism of government intervention in the controversial case. Earlier, he had argued that Boston’s liberalism played a role in the Catholic Church’s child sexual abuse scandal — earning a rebuke from then-Gov. Mitt Romney, the man now besting Santorum for the Republican presidential nomination
Santorum had also written a book, “It Takes A Family: Conservatism and the Common Good,” that would eventually help undermine his re-election ambitions. It portrayed him as a fearless culture warrior, painting the public school system as dangerous, inveighing about race and gay marriage in eyebrow-raising passages, and arguing that mothers benefit from staying at home.
It is interesting that the controversy over the book in this election, over which he feigned shock that his words were being misunderstood, precisely matched his 2006 experience:
The book’s passages would haunt Santorum, leaving fellow Republicans with little to do but shrug their shoulders.
The book “created difficulty with ordinary voters,” says Lowman Henry, a Republican state committee member. “Rick made it worse by being Rick — by publishing his book.”
Santorum couldn’t resist plowing into controversial social issues, Henry explains. “It’s like dangling a shiny object in front of a child.”
Jim Roddey, the Allegheny County GOP chairman, put it more bluntly: “It would have been better had he not written the book.”
When I interviewed Santorum in February and raised the book, he looked me in the eye and denied the book criticized women who went into the workplace. It was all about affirming “everyone’s choices.” That was false, a blatant misrepresentation of his own writing. Moreover, he certainly knew the real text had gotten him in big trouble in 2006. Did he imagine he would slide by? Did he think no one would re-read the book? Or had he so convinced himself of his own righteousness that he convinced himself he had written something that he hadn’t? He even invented a new excuse, not deployed in 2006 — his wife had co-written that passage with him. She received no credit for it in the book.
The harshness that many thought he had overcome resurfaced with abandon as the campaign wore on. In 2006, according to a then-Santorum intern quoted in the Cherkis-Stein article, Santorum expressed “disgust with a kid he saw standing in the grocery store parking lot with baggy pants, declaring he’d never let his son dress that way. Even in the most private, apolitical moment of the day, Santorum couldn’t suppress the urge to judge.” This year it was publicly chastising a boy for using a pink bowling ball. Seriously. The world according to Rick must be preached to all of us.
Also in 2006, the article reports, Santorum got into a screaming match with activists about his lack of fiscal conservatism. In 2012, he became angry in the final debate when Mitt Romney pointed out that while Santorum posed as a conservative purist, his voting record was less than pristine.
As the report notes, Santorum’s “apocalyptic” rhetoric is back as well. It is not that he is necessarily off-base on substance, but the extremism of his rhetoric and the ferocity with which he expresses himself turn ordinary propositions (schools need reform) into head-scratching pronouncements (states aren’t even fit to set curriculum). He gives life to the caricature of conservatives that liberals love paint (anti-contraception, against working women).
Yesterday, we saw the smallness of the man in a vivid, albeit small way. Politico reported: “Paul Ryan’s camp called Rick Santorum to alert him to a pending endorsement of Mitt Romney, and the former senator’s team then shared that courtesy call with BuzzFeed’s Rosie Gray, stealing at least a bit of the front-runner’s thunder on the rollout.” Think about that. Ryan does the gentlemanly thing, certainly not required, in letting Santorum know what was to happen. It was an act of graciousness. Santorum then decides to use that to try to deprive Ryan and Romney of their moment. Call it juvenile or low class. It’s just classic Rick.
We expect a level of decency, maturity and largeness of spirit from a president. Santorum’s deficit in these qualities is more devastating than his delegate deficit. It accounted in large part for his 2006 loss, and it is his undoing this time around. A 53 year-old man can’t change his core personality. Not even to win the White House.