Santorum the Moderate?

Windham, New Hampshire—Rick Santorum, the darling of the cultural-religious right, came here last night for a town-hall question-and-answer session with 500 eager listeners, only to find that his questioners were so far to his right that he was compelled to sound moderate by comparison. The disappointment— Santorum’s and the crowd’s—was mutual.

The event—which was moved to a high-school auditorium three times larger than the venue originally scheduled, and where every seat was nonetheless filled— was hosted by a radical-right local group called the 9/12 Coalition. Alas for Santorum, the 9/12ers selected the first seven questioners, who peppered him with queries at once so arcane and so fantastical that Santorum must have harbored suspicions they’d been planted either by Mitt Romney or Ron Paul.

Two of the questions were libertarian, even civil libertarian, though suffused with a conspiracy theorist’s fear that the government in general and Barack Obama in particular was on the verge arresting us all and throwing away the key.  The first concerned the provision in the just-signed National Defense Authorization Act, which allowed the government to detain citizens indefinitely—a provision inserted in the act by congressional Republicans, though neither questioner nor answerer alluded to this inconvenient truth. Santorum, who is nobody’s libertarian, gave a long and initially weasely answer—that an unnamed Republican senator had told him that the new law merely codified what had become law through judicial decisions, and then, more forthrightly, said that if a citizen posed a threat to national security, it was all right to hold him. 

The second libertarian question asked Santorum if he’d oppose the Internet Piracy Act, inasmuch as it opened the door to government control of the web.  Santorum offered a distinctly non-Tea Party answer: “Freedom has to be accompanied by regulation.” Internet piracy, he went on, violated property rights. And either because he knew his answer displeased many in the crowd or because he just couldn’t shut up, he teased out or just restated the nuances of his argument at considerable—like five-minute—length.

Then the questions grew woolier. A guy with a great thatch of white hair asked him whether the United States would surrender its sovereignty by succumbing to the U.N.’s “Agenda 21,” whatever that is. A woman asked if she could count on Santorum to support a proposed constitutional amendment that would affirm the parental rights undermined by the U.N.’s CRC Treaty, whatever that is. The final pre-selected questioner had a simpler question: Did Santorum support the idea (most notably advanced by John C. Calhoun) that states should have the right to nullify federal laws they didn’t like?

At the rate things were going, had there been one more pre-selected questioner, he would probably have asked what Santorum thought about the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.

Santorum gently, and at much too great length, tried to disabuse the black helicopter conspiracy theorists. It made sense, he said, for the U.S. to stay in the U.N. inasmuch as the U.N. was useful in some security matters, but not to adhere to any of its social agenda. The nullification question, however, was a bridge too far, even for Santorum. “We fought a war about nullification,” he said. “We’ve been through that, and I don’t think it would be a helpful thing” to do it again.

He may conflate church and state, but give Rick Santorum credit where credit is due: He comes down on the side of the North in the Civil War.

Whatever excitement the crowd had entered with had dissipated by evening’s end. Santorum had not merely disappointed many by his refusal to endorse every cock-eyed conspiracy his questioners had entertained, but he had also talked so long in explaining his answers that he exhausted people’s attention. (One convoluted, seven-minute answer to a question on baseline budgeting was met with tepid applause at its conclusion—chiefly, it seemed, out of relief that the answer was finally done.)

“I like Senator Santorum,” Christine Morabito, who came up from Boston where she’s the president of —drumroll, please —the Boston Tea Party, told me at evening’s end, “but his performance was a little lackluster. I wanted to be inspired, and I wasn’t. I wanted more.”

What the evening did demonstrate was that the Republican far right has descended so deep into its own world—one of conspiracies and causes so whacked and obscure that most Americans can’t even understand them, much less embrace them—that even the most right-wing presidential candidates we’ve ever seen have trouble supporting them. Republicans are complaining that they have second-tier, marginal presidential candidates this year, but they are nowhere so marginal as the Republican base.  This fish stinks from the tail.  

 

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