Last week, I had a little fun with Rick Santorum's appearance in a GOP presidential debate in Ames, Iowa. Santorum whined about how he hadn't been asked enough questions in the debate, faulting the "national media" for overlooking him. Given that Santorum had, until announcing his run, been enjoying a cushy contract at Fox News itself, I thought that was a little rich.
OK, I get it: Santorum may have been overwhelmingly rejected by Pennsylvania's voters back in 2006. He may be a knuckle-dragging dweeb. But he's our knuckle-dragging dweeb. He's got to be at least as credible a candiate as pizza baron Herman Cain, right?
But let's back up a second here and ask: By what standard is Santorum -- or any candidate -- entitled to coverage? He can't claim a mandate from the people. Polls frequently show him trailing the field. A recent Rasmussen poll, for example, showed him drawing just 1 percent. Given that the poll has a 3 percent margin of error, you have to say that statistically speaking, there's a chance that Rick Santorum may not actually exist. That would explain why so few questions get tossed his way.
And if we're gonna start feeling sorry for overlooked candidates, who deserves our sympathy more? The guy who feels like he doesn't get asked enough questions in debates? Or the guy who hasn't been invited to the debates at all?
Gary Johnson, a former governor who skews toward the liberatarian end of the GOP spectrum, didn't even get a podium at Ames -- not the first time he's been ignored. Salon's Glenn Greenwald decries his omission, along with the continual slighting of similarly liberatarian Ron Paul:
Coverage of these presidential campaigns has even more pernicious effects than mere distraction. They are also vital in bolstering orthodoxies and narrowing the range of permitted views. Few episodes demonstrate how that works better than the current disappearing of Ron Paul, all but an "unperson" in Orwellian terms. He just finished a very close second to Michele Bachmann in the Ames poll, yet while she went on all five Sunday TV shows and dominated headlines, he was barely mentioned. He has raised more money than any GOP candidate other than Romney, and routinely polls in the top 3 or 4 of GOP candidates in national polls, yet ... the media have decided to steadfastly pretend he does not exis ...
That the similarly anti-war, pro-civil-liberties, anti-drug-war Gary Johnson is not even allowed in media debates -- despite being a twice-elected popular governor -- highlights the same dynamic.
So save your sympathy for someone who deserves it. Like the former New Mexico governor who wants to legalize pot and prostitution while slashing corporate taxes.
Greenwald's argument, essentially, is that Johnson and Paul are ignored because their views are too unorthodox. They just don't fit the narrative of what today's GOP is supposed to be about. But the problem with Santorum, by contrast, may be one of style. And it may be that he isn't unorthodox enough.
I mean, look at him up there, talking about how sometimes compromise is necessary. "You can't stand and say, 'You give me everything I want or I'll vote no.'" he told the audience in Ames. "You need people who are good at leadership, not showmanship."
Which tells you right there why he isn't getting traction. In today's GOP, being a showman is what leadership is all about.
Unlike Michelle Bachmann, Santorum isn't hot, and unlike Rick Perry, he doesn't pack heat. He's boring, with a presentation that is pure high-school debate squad. But GOP candidates aren't being rewarded for winning debate points. They're being rewarded for promising to shove their rivals' heads in the toilets and give them swirlies.
Santorum just doesn't get that. He still thinks ideas matter, the nerd.
How, for example, did Santorum respond when Perry came damn near to leveling the charge of treason against Federal Reserve head Ben Bernanke? By saying this:
Well his comments about Ben Bernanke, they were completely out of bounds. I don’t agree with Ben Bernanke’s policies ... We don’t impeach people, we don’t charge people with treason because we disagree with them on public policy. You might say that they’re wrong, you might say lots of things about how misguided they are, but you don’t up the ante to that type of rhetoric. It’s out of place, and hopefully Gov. Perry will step back and recognize that we’re not in Texas anymore.
But Rick, we are in Texas. That's just the thing.
Democrats know this all too well. I mean, some of Santorum's fellow Fox News personalities -- like Ann Coulter -- have been accusing us of treasonous activity for years. The fact that Santorum sounds so surprised by this rheotric all the sudden suggests that he's either disingenuous or an idiot.
Back in Santorum's political heyday, of course, this kind of rhetoric was confined to Rush Limbaugh and the right wing cheering section. The candidates themselves were happy to benefit from that talk, but they didn't need to use it themselves.
But now the cheerleaders have become the candidates -- literally so in Perry's case. Or more accurately, the Republican party apparatus has diminished in importance, while the influence of Fox and Limbaugh has increased. As a result, GOP presidential candidates dare not depart from the talking points they have crafted. And those talking points were crafted not to drive policy but to drive ratings.So all the sudden Santorum finds himself being drowned out in the clamor, just as we lefities have for years. Like us, he finds himelf beset by a tide of Fox-fueled, soundbite-driven know-nothingism. And that doesn't just threaten a particular policy. It's a threat to the very idea of policy-making itself, as we've seen most recently in the debt ceiling debacle.
In fact, Santorum's only hope may be that if that sort of shenanigan continues, the Tea Party brand will become so tainted that Fox, and the GOP, will need something new to sell.
The market in GOP frontrunners is already plenty volatile, of course. For awhile Palin was the frontrunner. Then it was Donald Trump. Mitt Romney seemed the default choice until Iowa's recent straw caucus. Bachmann now seems on top, though Perry may topple her. After that, who knows? Paul Ryan? Allen West?
It's possible that none of the frontrunners' ratings will hold up into 2012. In that case, the GOP might well come back to a reality-based candidate like Romney. Santorum might get some juice as the thinking man's neanderthal, allowing him a shot at the VP post.
But for now, there's no point in complaining, Rick. You just don't fit into the line-up with the rest of Fox's fall schedule.