Sorting Out Santorum

I don’t like Rick Santorum, and I’m not sure why.

Mitt Romney, fresh off three embarrassing losses to the guy in relatively inconsequential, delegate-light states, has turned on the high beams and is attempting to run ol’ Rick down. But just as Newt’s baggage offered a plethora of potential cannon fodder, the ammunition against Rick is pretty weak stuff. He liked earmarks? Good for him. He raised the debt ceiling? Of course he did, and he was wise to do it. He supported Arlen Specter? They were friends; they were colleagues, and it was the right thing to do.

So it’s not that I disagree with him particularly. Much has been made of his alleged homophobia, but his position is not at all different from Romney’s, and, anyway, I have very conflicted opinions about that particular issue. (Although I did check Urban Dictionary to learn the definition of the slang his last name has become. Um, yuck.)

I’ll join in on complaints that he voted for No Child Left Behind, but that’s about as far as it goes. Personally, like Mitt, his behavior has been above reproach, and politically, he’s got a more reliable, lengthy conservative record than Mitt. And Mrs. Cornell even thinks he’s kind of hot.

So why don’t I like him?

I met Rick Santorum shortly after he was elected to the Senate in 1994. He swept in as part of the Republican wave that returned control of both houses of Congress to the GOP for the first time in a generation. I remember watching the electoral returns and being giddy about the results. Election nights where Republicans win are fun to watch on TV as  the supposedly objective news anchors become increasingly churlish and dour-faced as the night goes on. I kept picking up the phone and calling my brother, who lived on the other end of the country, with each fresh win. When they called Pennsylvania for Santorum, it was one of the highlights of the night. I picked up the phone, my brother answered, and I yelled “Santorum!” as loud as I could.

That was the greatest amount of electoral joy Mr. Santorum has ever provided me and probably ever will.

At the time, I was an intern for Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming, and Rick Santorum was something of a curiosity in the halls of Congress. He was only in his mid-thirties, but he looked about twelve years old, and he was on the Senate floor just about every other day giving fiery speeches about how stupid the rest of his fellow senators were. Senate speeches are an interesting phenomenon. They’re given solely for the cameras. There are no other senators on the Senate floor, so the speeches are little more than hot air. As an intern, it was often my job to take tourists to watch floor proceedings, and they were almost always disappointed at how irrelevant the actual speeches were. “What a waste of time,” one disillusioned tourist remarked, and I agreed.

It was also occasionally my job to monitor the floor speeches and make sure to note anything significant that was said. We had an unofficial rule, though – we only paid attention to Senators who were actually capable of saying something worthwhile, and the only Senators who did that were every Senator except for Robert Byrd and Rick Santorum. Both of them loved to hear themselves say profound, republic-shaking things that made absolutely no difference to anyone or anything.

One of the most dramatic events I recall during that time was the vote on the Balanced Budget Amendment. For the only time in my memory, the entire Senate was convened in on the floor, and each Senator was polled individually as to how they would vote. One lone Republican, Mark Hatfield of Oregon, had the good sense to recognize that a Balanced Budget Amendment was little more than a gimmick that had the potential to make much mischief, and he was the only one willing to vote no. The amendment failed to pass by a single vote.

Rick Santorum was mad.

For days and maybe weeks afterward, Rick Santorum took to the floor and gave speech after speech about how Hatfield should be rebuked for his vote, should be stripped of his seniority and his chairmanships. The entire Republican leadership ignored him, which made him even madder. At one point, he even went so far as to say something along the lines of “I’m as much a Senator as he is!” It was nyah, nyah, I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I, second grade playground behavior, and it was ignored by leadership and mocked by everyone else.

President Obama demonstrates the main reason that Senators don’t usually make good presidents. Presidents are held accountable. When things go wrong, it’s their fault. Senators, on the other hand, don’t have to do anything, strictly speaking. They just have to make noise. And Santorum managed to make twelve years of noise without making much of a difference.

Yes, he was on the right side of many of the issues of the day, but he did little or nothing to advance the cause. He made churlish speeches and complained a lot, but that’s about it. There’s something unappealingly childish about the man that extends beyond his boyish face. It’s like he’s eager to find an excuse to take his ball and go home. Several of my friends on Facebook noted that he always looks like he’s about to burst into tears.

But there is much to admire about the man. He’s a man of faith, a fine father, and I’d have no problem voting for him if he’s the nominee. But long before I even knew who Mitt Romney was, I thought Rick Santorum was kind of a lightweight, a chihuahua who thinks his bark will sound like a doberman’s if he just yelps often enough. Nothing has happened in the intervening two decades to significantly alter that first impression.

The Parable of the Vegan Café
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