From our standpoint over on the left, this Republican presidential primary has been a remarkable spectacle to behold. We've watched in wonder as one ridiculous candidate after another has rocketed to the top of the polls, all while the guy everyone assumes will be the eventual nominee struggles to convince voters he's a real human. The race has been a parade of charlatans and fools, with the lead at various times being held by an unhinged religious nut (Bachmann), a governor who made George W. Bush look like Stephen Hawking (Perry), a pizza executive whose ignorance was truly head-spinning (Cain), the nation's most unpopular major politician (Gingrich), and America's most vulgar citizen (Trump). None of these people were remotely imaginable as president, and all were a hoot to watch as they bumbled along toward their inevitable falls.
But now that Rick Santorum is the last non-Romney standing, things have taken a serious turn. Santorum is not hilariously buffoonish, amusingly stupid, or weirdly grandiose. He's just a pinched, mean little man, someone who would have been right at home at Torquemada's side flaying heretics or pointing his quivering finger at witches in Salem.
Yes, Santorum is consumed with culture-war hatred, lashing out at unclean gay people and the slutty women who think they can have sex without being punished for their sins. But he's also the kind of guy who uses his disabled daughter to lie about the Affordable Care Act, who compares President Obama to Adolf Hitler, and who regularly imputes the most despicable motives to his political opponents (that last link, from the invaluable Harold Pollack, is what inspired this post). He's not the dumbest or the craziest or the most hypocritical, but he is the embodiment of some of the most sinister and contemptible undercurrents in American politics.
I'm not at all worried that Rick Santorum will be president. Either he'll get overcome by the Romney machine, or if by some chance he gets the GOP nomination, he'd lose to Obama by 15 points. Let's recall what happened in his Senate career. He was fortunate enough to run for the first time in 1994, when in a Republican wave he beat Harris Wofford, who had been elected in a special election. Then six years later he was fortunate again, this time being blessed with a weak opponent who ran an anemic campaign (and whom Santorum outspent by 3.5 - 1). Six years after that, he finally faced a tough race, against a popular politician who was the son of another popular politician. Pennsylvania voters, finally fed up with Santorum's culture-war politics that would have been more at home in Alabama, turned him out by 18 points.
Republicans may wish that the attention Santorum is now getting would veer off topics like sex and religion and on to ground that doesn't alienate their party so much from the broader American electorate. But this was inevitable. It's who Rick Santorum is—he was saying the same despicable things before, it's just that fewer people were paying attention. And there has never been anything funny about it.