The OZY Hunger Games: Rick Santorum's Fallow Field of Dreams
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because unlike movies, politics doesn’t always follow a script.
By Sean Braswell
Remember how the Hunger Games would honor its fallen tributes? In this occasional series, OZY predicts which presidential candidates will be the next to fall — whether they know it or not.
What happened, Senator? This is supposed to be your year, Rick Santorum. From Ronald Reagan to George H.W. Bush to John McCain and Mitt Romney, Republicans have a reliable history of making last election’s top bridesmaid this season’s bride. And after winning 11 states, including Iowa, in 2012, that’s you in 2016. Instead, you find yourself staring at near-zero poll numbers and yet another underwhelming outing in a kids-table debate Wednesday. (We tried asking your campaign this painful question, but it did not respond to requests for comment.)
Somehow Sleeveless Rick, America’s favorite sweater-vested culture warrior, has been outfought and outpreached, even on once-friendly Iowa soil. And despite its reputation as a political field of dreams, this is not heaven, Senator, it’s Iowa. And at some point, for you and the other political ghosts of yesteryear emerging from the corn, there’s nothing to be won from this spectacle of the walking dead, just a chance to entertain, to play a part in a pageant run by those out to turn a buck and pay their mortgages.
It’s got to hurt, because if any candidate connected with Iowa, it was you. You won the 2012 caucuses the gritty, old-fashioned way: eating meals on the dashboard of your truck en route to winning the hearts and minds of your fellow social conservatives with your staunch antigay and antiabortion views. And after more than 250 events across all 99 Iowa counties, you beat Mitt Romney by 34 votes — 16 days after the state’s caucuses — in what was likely the hardest-fought, yet least consequential, victory in modern presidential politics.
Since 2012, you’ve remained busy giving speeches, writing books and serving as CEO of EchoLight Studios, a faith-based-film company with a distribution model that affords you the perfect marketplace for your ideas: a devout, ticket-paying church audience eager for well-intentioned fiction. Whatever your intentions might have been, though, some of your past remarks — comparing homosexuality to bestiality and pedophilia; claiming that women who find themselves pregnant as a result of rape should “make the best out of a bad situation” — have landed you in hot water. Not to mention left you increasingly far from the cultural mainstream, particularly in the wake of the Supreme Court’s blessing of same-sex marriage. “Clearly, the culture has changed,” you recently acknowledged to The Washington Post. “That’s why I talk about those things differently.”
We guess that’s also why you’ve rediscovered your roots as the grandson of a Pennsylvania coal miner and recast yourself as a champion of the working class, advocating for policies like raising the minimum wage, while some of your GOP rivals, like Ben Carson, rev up your former base with red-meat Nazi references. Unfortunately, it’s a blue-collar populism that has yet to really catch on among conservatives, including in Iowa, where one of your events this summer drew a single attendee.
Sure, it would be tempting to refer to such a small quorum for a campaign event as a “Santorum,” but alas, your name has already drawn some much better definitions. “Santorum? Is that Latin for asshole?” Senator Bob Kerrey was once overheard remarking. If that wasn’t colorful enough, a contest sponsored by columnist and LGBT-rights activist Dan Savage after your “man on dog” remarks resulted in a meme forever tying you to a “frothy mixture” that still turns up in the first page of search results for those Googling your name.
By now, however, it’s just not clear how your sweater vests and social views made it through intact from 1955 to 2015 — perhaps they were stowaways in Marty McFly’s DeLorean — but, you’re right, the culture has changed. And even in the socially conservative corners of Iowa where your message still resonates, it appears people are looking for a new messenger. Your season is finished, Senator, and it’s time to turn out the lights and return to the corn with all the other ghosts.
Please tip your cap to the fallen, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.