In the Arena

Two Candidacies, Two Planets

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Concord, New Hampshire

Rick Santorum had a terrible and deeply silly day of campaigning yesterday. I watched him work at two events. He got into a foolish and unnecessary argument over gay marriage with students at a college convention–and then he wasted an evening speaking to a truly lunatic fringe assemblage of Glenn Beck viewers in the town of Windham. This morning, I saw Jon Huntsman speak to the same group of college students–and he gave, by far, the most sane and substantive, but still conservative, stump speech I’ve seen a Republican candidate deliver this year.

First, Santorum. His performance with college students was amateur hour, a childish attempt at Socratic dialogue, witlessly demeaning to those–especially those conservatives–who believe that marriage shouldn’t be subject to state intervention. It was demeaning because he asked the students if it was ok if 3 people wanted to get married, which started the mayhem. The question was, as a student quickly pointed out, irrelevant: it was about polygamy, not gay marriage. Santorum would have been much better off if he had said, “Look, my church teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman. I believe that to be true traditionally, biologically and spiritually. In my mind, marriage has everything to do with bringing new life into this world. Only a marriage between a man and a woman is conducive to that. You may disagree with my view. I hope, at least, you’ll give it some thought. But let’s move on to other issues that are crucial this year, issues we might agree on.”

(MORE: The Passion of Rick Santorum)

For the record: I believe Santorum’s view of homosexuality is archaic and inhumane. I believe that the acknowledgment of homosexuality as a natural state has reduced the sum of unnecessary anguish in the world. I also believe that two men or two women who love each other, and want to share their resources, and be responsible for each other, especially late in life, should be able to do so legally–and that such couples should be allowed to adopt and raise children. Whether these sorts of arrangements should be consecrated by various religious sects is up to those sects (and that means that private agencies, like Catholic Charities, can’t be forced to provide adoptive children to gay couples–a current controversy). I know more than a few such couples; they are my friends and neighbors; they are active, positive citizens who add stability and social capital to our community. Any denigration of these people, even the slightest suggestion–implicit in Santorum’s question–that their love is comparable to bestiality, polygamy or anything less than the love of a man and a woman, is an act of anti-social violence.

But Santorum clearly wanted the fight, which is six different kinds of stupid.  Watching him at both events yesterday, he seemed  completely inept as a big league candidate. A professional politician would have emphasized his economic plan in a state traditionally obsessed with economics. Santorum’s desire to eliminate the corporate tax on manufacturing could be a very popular issue in New Hampshire, but he barely mentioned it. At the Glenn Beck event in Windham, he spent much of the evening responding to lunatic conspiracy theories about United Nations threats to U.S. sovereignty, promulgated by the ridiculous Beck. He didn’t pander, which was good. But he didn’t really get his message across either, which was bad.

The contrast with Hunstman couldn’t be more stark. Huntsman was sharp this morning, much better than the last time I saw him on the stump. He focused on the issues that actually matter–the economy, the deficit, energy and foreign policy, as well as the larger problem of trust or, rather, how to deal with the lack of trust in any of our big institutions, from Congress to the Presidency to Wall Street. Huntsman is a conservative. He is pro-life (with no flip-flops), he imposed a flat tax in Utah (and would have a lower, flatter but still progressive federal income tax structure), he favors Paul Ryan-style entitlement reform, he is opposed to Dodd-Frank and other government schemes to over-regulate the business community (but he has a plan to break up the “too big to fail” banks). He knows a lot and communicates it easily. But he’s going nowhere in this primary. Others have suggested that he “offended” the Republican base by acknowledging his belief in evolution and man-made climate change. If so, the Republican base badly needed offending.

(MORE: The Huntsman Fallacy)

But Huntsman’s real sin is deeper than that: his is a vitriol-free candidacy. There is no gratuitous sliming of Barack Obama or his fellow Republican candidates. There is no spurious talk of “socialism.” He pays not the slightest heed to the various licks and chops that Rush Limbaugh has made into stations of the cross for Republican candidates. He is out-of-step with the anger that has overwhelmed his party and puts it at odds with the vast, sensible mainstream of this country. Because he has refused to engage in such carnival tactics–because he hasn’t had any oops! moments, extramarital affairs, lobbying deals with Freddie Mac or flip-flops–the media have largely ignored him. That makes us complicit in a national political calamity. But Republican voters have been complicit, too: a conservative party that doesn’t take Huntsman seriously as a candidate has truly lost its way.