Honesty Versus Electability
From the comfortable observation booth that is Wesleyan, this year’s Republican primary race has been nothing short of insane. After watching a steady stream of has-beens and wannabes capture the attention of the national media and the Republican electorate, we watched, dumbfounded, as the limelight focused ever more intently on Rick Santorum. That’s right, Rick Santorum. This is the guy who compared homosexuality to bestiality and pedophilia. A former senator who is against the use and sale of contraceptives because, apparently, they give people “a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.” He favors laws criminalizing “sodomy” and adultery, a position that makes one question whether he just wants to replace the U.S. civil code with Leviticus and the Ten Commandments. The questions that occur to all of us is this: What is the source of his success? Why are people attracted to this guy? We have watched crowds of people cheer a politician with positions that would set this country back 200 years (at least) and have listened to news organizations talk about him as a serious candidate.
This is all the more baffling because it is not as if Santorum is alone in the primary race. Mitt Romney, handsome, rich, relatively moderate and eminently electable, continues to be left out in the cold. Despite his pedigree and qualifications, a steady stream of candidates who have captured the hearts and minds of the Republican electorate have consistently eclipsed him. They have done so by mustering two things that Mitt Romney doesn’t have and can’t buy: honesty and legitimacy. He was pro-choice, but now claims to be the most ardently pro-life candidate in a field of pro-life zealots. He passed a universal health care law in Massachusetts, but now says that he would repeal Obama’s healthcare law as soon as possible. Perhaps his greatest sin in the eyes of the working class voters of Michigan and Ohio is his position on the auto bailout. In 2008 he wrote an opinion piece declaring that we should “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.” Now, he is pandering to Michigan voters as if he never said that, and they smell the rat.
This difference is the source of Santorum’s success. Whereas Romney seems to be constantly licking his finger and testing the political winds, Santorum speaks from the heart. He may appear crazy, but there is little doubt that he means what he says. Listen to Santorum speak and one comes away with the impression that this guy is a true believer. If he had the chance, he probably would criminalize adultery. American voters crave honesty. We like people who lay their cards out on the table and tell us how they really feel. I don’t think Santorum’s success necessarily comes from what he says. I think it comes from how he says it. Listen to Santorum, and you feel like he is speaking sincerely. Listen to Romney, and you can feel the disingenuousness. Even if people disagree with a politician in whole or in part, they are more likely to sympathize with one who is willing to tell them their true positions. The source of our frustration with politics is that no one seems to do this anymore. Politicians eternally talk out of both sides of their mouths, and we are so sick of it that we will embrace anyone who seems to mean what they say. Rick Santorum has tapped into this desire for honesty and, without money or organization, ridden it to front-runner status. Until Romney can find a way to prove to people that he can be trusted, don’t expect him to enjoy any long-term success.