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Rick Santorum and the Modern Presidential Campaign

Date posted: Friday, April 20, 2012

What happens to candidates when their run ends?

Photograph via Cantaur

Photograph via Cantaur

Previously, I compared the Republican Presidential Primary to a horror movie that refused to end, offering “one fake twist and turn after another, except we already know who the real killer is and we just want to see the credits roll officially already.” Well, consider the credits rolled: the race is over now. Mitt Romney for Prez!

True, Ron Paul is still talking about ending all student aid and the Environmental Protection Agency. (In other words, he is being Ron Paul.) And Newt Gingrich still bravely roams the heartland, visiting zoos and getting bit by penguins, and lecturing undergraduates like “an associate professor who missed tenure and openly despises the administration.” (In other words, he is being Newt Gingrich.) But think of all this as the part of the movie that comes after the credits, when they show the jokes and screw-ups and that weren’t quite compelling enough to make it into the actual film.

No, things really ended when Rick Santorum, the only quarter-way conceivable threat remaining to Romney’s nomination, suspended his campaign last week. Anthony Resnick has already ably catalogued Santorum’s role in this primary. But I’m interested in this race’s effect on Rick—what running has done for Santorum. Because this has, all things considered, been an astonishing few months for Santorum.

Prior to this campaign, if you had asked politicos what came to mind when they thought about Rick Santorum, they probably would have cited three things:

1. The time Santorum compared homosexuality to pedophilia and bestiality.

2. Thanks to sex columnist Dan Savage, Santorum’s subsequent Google problem.

3. Losing his state senate to Bob Casey by the largest margin of defeat for a sitting senator since 1980.

But that was then. Now he is henceforth Rick Santorum, second-best Republican candidate for president in the year 2012. His official campaign site and Twitter appear above “Spreading Santorum” on Google. Honor and legitimacy have been restored. Yes, Santorum may have been running to win. But by the end, with no hope of catching Romney in delegates, this was the presidential run as rehabilitation. He traded in the suit for the sweater vest, criticized homosexuality in slightly softer, more welcoming tones, and—voila!—the makeover was complete.

Now respectable news organizations are running articles with headlines like “Is Rick Santorum Now The 2016 GOP Frontrunner?” (um, no) and his name is being mentioned in the same sentence as the words “vice president” (um, no). I find both those notions laughable, so maybe this wasn’t quite political rehabilitation. Still, this race was public rehabilitation for Santorum, and that’s something.

Consider Anthony’s summary of Santorum’s position prior to this race:

Six months ago, it would have been laughable to suggest that Santorum would have been a top-five finisher in this race, let alone the first runner-up. When the campaign started in earnest, Santorum had been out of office for five years with little national exposure, no money, and a speaking style better described as “whiny and pedantic” rather than “inspirational.”

And now . . . well, okay, he still has no money (he’s in debt!), and he’s still whiny and pedantic. But he’s also Rick Santorum, the honorable little conservative engine who did the best he could as underdog to Romney’s elite money machine. He is no longer a national punch line. Even though he didn’t win, running for president did Santorum a world of good. And he isn’t the only one.

If there was a theme to the 2012 Republican Primary beside the fact that most of the candidates were partially crazy, it was the Presidential Run (or dipping of toes into the Presidential Run waters) as Publicity Stunt/Brand-Building/Book Tour. See: Trump, Donald; Palin, Sarah; Gingrich, Newt; Cain, Herminator. (Seriously, did anyone know who Herman Cain was two years ago?) In the 21st century, presidential elections produce and consume so much media attention that running, or even pretending you’re considering running, equals the opportunity to siphon some of it for personal gain.

Which isn’t to say it never backfires. Take poor Newt. All he really wanted to do was sell some books, promote some documentaries, and publicize his Big Ideas, all while occasionally vacationing in Greece and berating the media. This was the man’s idea of running for president—how hard could it be? Well, as The Atlantic Monthly reports, his “empire is in shambles.” His nonprofit has shut down. His for-profit has shut down. And in the worst of all possible indignities, the surest sign that he has been cast from the good graces of the GOP elite, he will not be able to return to his role as Fox News contributor; he might be forced to angle for a job at (gasp) CNN. CNN!

We can only hope this serves as a deterrent the next time non-serious people want to use a presidential election as a personal advertisement. But don’t hold your breath.

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Ben Hoffman was a Teach For America corps member in Washington, D.C., where he also worked for several think tanks. He now lives in North Carolina, where he teaches and writes. He tweets @benrhoffman.

View all posts by Ben Hoffman →


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