The real meaning of Santorum

Rick Santorum joins Republican presidential race: 'In it to win it'â??

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum is ardently anti-gay and has an acute talent for tapping into the homophobic imagination of social conservatives. “Man on child,” “man on dog,” incest, “priests with 3-year-olds,” polygamy, the welfare of children, the decline of Western civilization—if it’s in the vocabulary of anti-gay hysteria, Santorum has been there, done that.

As a result, he’s become the target of a Google bomb, led by gay columnist Dan Savage, that successfully redefined “santorum” as a substance most straight people probably didn’t know existed and most gay men never thought to name, especially not in honor of a Republican US Senator. But hey, shi* happens—and now Santorum is widely considered a joke. The launch of his presidential campaign today was greeted with a chorus of knowing sneers.

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No, not just because of the internet prank, but for all that lies behind its mockery: a generational shift away from right-wing sanctimony and its preoccupation with the decline of the traditional family towards are more mass-mediated, liberal, tolerant, laissez-faire approach to sexuality. Santorum seems dated. In addition to mean and bigoted, his views appear nonsensical and unserious. The great cultural bellwether known as Miley Cyrus’ twitter account has come out against him, and even his remaining die-hard supporters, like the National Review’s Kathryn Jean Lopez, struggled to answer the question: “Why would he bother?”

Laugh away—for now he has the support of just two percent of Republican voters—but remember, Santorum wasn’t always just for shits and giggles. Before he crashed and burned in his race for a third Senate term, Santorum was considered a golden boy of the GOP. He had won four elections in a row in a swing state against well-financed Democrats. He was the youngest member of the GOP Senate leadership and for much of the early 2000s, one of its most frequent TV spokesmen.

Most importantly, Santorum was the baby face of compassionate conservatism and an important architect of its signature pieces of legislation. As head of the House GOP Task Force on Welfare Reform, Santorum wrote key parts of what became the landmark 1996 welfare reform bill signed by Bill Clinton. He championed No Child Left Behind and proposed the Santorum Amendment to it, which attempted to insert teaching on the theory of intelligent design. Along with Democrat Dick Durbin, Santorum crusaded for increasing US spending on the global fight against HIV/AIDS, especially if it went to church groups and controversial abstinence-only programs. He considered enlarging the US role in fighting AIDS integral to "American exceptionalism," and he earned the praise of Bono, among others, for his advocacy. Throughout it all, he worked behind the scenes to increase government funding for faith-based social services.

As conservative pundit Kathleen Parker lamented in September 2006, when it was clear that Santorum would go down to Bob Casey, “Santorum has been the conservatives’ point man for the world’s disenfranchised—the poor, the sick and the meek. If he loses, the face of compassionate conservatism will be gone.”

Parker was right. Nobody on the right talks of compassionate conservatism anymore, especially now that the Tea Party is running the show. In part that’s because it collapsed on its own internal contradictions. As an ideology, compassionate conservatism championed state support for social justice —to fight poverty, illiteracy or disease, for example—but it opposed the state doing that work itself. In practice, that meant turning the state into a giant, heavily-politicized pass-through mechanism that redistributed tax-payer dollars to private charities and corporations without meaningful accountability. Because compassionate conservatism is rooted in Christian missionary zealotry, it inevitably engaged in social engineering—abstinence-only sex education and discrimination against gays and lesbians, for example. And most importantly for the Tea Party right, it ran up the deficit. Along with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, for Tea Party conservatives, it is the most visible symbol of how Bush went wrong, corrupting real conservatism with profligate cronyism.

That’s the real reason why Santorum’s candidacy seems so laughable now. He’s a relic from another time, one marked by plentitude and optimism, when conservatives embraced a global role for the US, attempted to hijack American progressivism and above all, needed a new brand to bring them back from the mean years of straight-up bashing welfare queens and fags with AIDS (see Jesse Helms). Santorum fulfilled that role, speaking of America’s great and charitable mission to aid the poor while retaining enough smiling hatred to stoke the old base. It didn’t really make sense then. It really doesn’t make sense now.

Bio: Richard Kim is the executive editor of TheNation.com. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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