Santorum can't stop being Santorum: Why he won't shed his obsession with the culture wars

This go-around, he was supposed to be focusing on economics -- not railing against the gays. That didn't last long

Published July 14, 2015 11:58AM (EDT)

Rick Santorum             (AP/Nati Harnik)
Rick Santorum (AP/Nati Harnik)

Rick Santorum has talked about pivoting his focus from social to economic issues more often than the United States government has talked about pivoting its focus from the Middle East to Asia, and with about as much success. That's because Rick Santorum cannot stop being Rick Santorum, no matter how much he tries to stop being Rick Santorum.

It makes sense that Rick Santorum would not want to be Rick Santorum. I mean, who would? Imagine having to get out of bed each morning knowing that you had to spend the whole day being Rick Santorum. And that when you woke up the next day, you would still be Rick Santorum. Nightmarish, no?

In more practical terms: Rick Santorum will not be able to further his career in American politics ... much at all, under any circumstances, obviously ... but especially if he can't change his reputation as the single-issue guy who won't shut up about how terrible the gays are. Being a social conservative who at least had some prior experience working in the federal government was enough to carry him to a distant second-place finish in the laughably horrible 2012 GOP presidential field, but this time around, he's struggling even to get into the debates.

Things were supposed to be different this time. He wasn't going to let himself get distracted by all the questions about whether gay people are devils who will pave the way for legalized sex with animals or children. He was going to focus on his economic message, relatively unique within the Republican field, about how the party needs to shift away from babbling on about the "job creators" and the "makers and takers" and move towards pocketbook issues for the working class. (We say economic "message" intentionally because the actually economic policy proposals he considers don't square with the rabble-rousing populist rhetoric he shades them in. Eliminating corporate taxes for manufacturers, for example, is certainly a policy front in the class struggle, but not for the side that Santorum presents it as.)

Santorum's economic focus didn't get him anywhere in the polls quickly enough, and there are debates coming up in less than a month that he's on the verge of missing. At the same time, the Supreme Court found a right within the Constitution to same-sex marriage.

And so Rick Santorum can't help himself, needs a boost, and reverts to Classic Rick Santorum:

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum said Monday he wants a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as between a man and a woman in all 50 states, less than three weeks after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.

“I believe we need a national standard for marriage. I don't think we can have a standard from one state to another on what marriage is,” Santorum told reporters at a breakfast in Washington hosted by the Christian Science Monitor, adding that he wants “to define marriage the way it was defined for 4,000 years of human history.”

The remarks put Santorum to the right of rivals such as Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who are pushing a different kind of constitutional amendment that would allow states to decide whether to allow or ban same-sex marriage, rather than an amendment that would set a national standard.

The Rick Santorum who started his campaign a couple of months ago from a working-class part of Pennsylvania, holding up a piece of coal and promising to get people more money, is now making a big show of moving to Cruz and Walker's right on which dead-in-the-water constitutional amendment restricting popular rights he'll prioritize. He is going big on culture wars, again, because this is all he does.

Why is he running again? He cleaned up so well after the last election! That second-place finish got him all sorts of media deals and speaking fees and so on. It was obvious to anyone that he would have no chance of competing in a field with actually legitimate candidates, and it's not like his "we need this Constitutional amendment bashing gay people, not that one" is adding an especially necessary element to the conservation.

This could get really embarrassing for Rick. Sorry, did we write "could" get? Here is Rick Santorum on Monday saying that Republicans can't trust Scott Walker because his wife is kinda-sorta OK with same-sex marriage.

Asked what he thought about Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s wife admitting to not exactly being against gay marriage, Santorum responded: “Spouses matter.”

“When your spouse is not in-sync with you — particularly on cultural issues, moral issues — [you] tend not to be as active on those issues,” he said.

Yeah, so maybe Scott Walker won't, unlike Rick Santorum, waste precious time trying to move an immovable constitutional amendment restricting same-sex marriage. What a shame that would be for the nation.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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