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Dialing For Santorum

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In this sense, Santorum's race offered the most exact referendum on the hardheaded, religious inflexibility of George W. Bush. Indeed, the poisonously negative atmosphere

sphere surrounding this entire midterm election was in many ways a hell of Santorum's own creation. All across the country, candidates on both sides of the aisle stooped to new lows in campaign-season broadsides seemingly pulled straight from Santorum's fuck-everybody-else playbook.

A GOP congressional candidate in Wisconsin said his opponent wanted to "let illegal immigrants burn the American flag" and allow "convicted child molesters to enter this country." In Ohio, Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Blackwell accused opponent Ted Strickland of failing to condemn pedophilia. Meanwhile, in more than two dozen districts around the country, a political-action committee released ads portraying Democrats as the party of choice among black street thugs who want to abort their babies ("If you make a little mistake with one of your ho's," says one, "you'll want to dispose of that problem tout de suite"). And in a kind of masterpiece of political pettiness, the Republican National Congressional Committee ran an ad accusing New York Democrat Michael Arcuri of using state funds to pay for a phone-sex call — which was true, except that Arcuri had dialed a wrong number and hung up immediately.

As I sat in Santorum's headquarters dialing his supporters, this talent for invective was all that was left of the great Republican revolution of Karl Rove, Rush Limbaugh and religious crusaders like Santorum. Their biggest policy initiatives, like Iraq, were unmitigated catastrophes, and the much-vaunted "morality" issue so important to them in the Clinton years was now a dead end — crashed on the rocks of funhouse congressional creeps like Mark Foley, Bob Ney, Duke Cunningham and Santorum's fellow Pennsylvania Republican Don Sherwood, who was defeated amid revelations that he cheated on his wife and allegedly choked his mistress. Public perception that the GOP had gorged themselves like leeches on power was so strong that even President Bush was shunned across the country; in Florida, the Republican candidate for governor fled from the president's presence before the polls opened.

Beyond the Republican shipwreck, unfortunately, lies an utter vacuum of positive ideas. The Democrats may have been less over-the-top about their negative campaigning, but they still spent more than $72 million on attack ads, only slightly less than the other guys. They had nothing to say except that the Republicans sucked — which was true, but where does that leave us?

This was the year the national elections devolved into nothing more than a forum for organizing the disgust and revulsion of the population, with both sides firmly entrenched in their own tribal paranoia and ready to disbelieve any unwelcome result the voting machines might spit out, all confidence in the system lost. No one really won — it felt more like the country decided to pull the plug on itself or burn cigarettes in its arm.

As it happens, i met santorum almost immediately upon showing up to volunteer at his headquarters. He looked tired and dazed, like a man who had just fallen on the ice in a hockey game. His eyes were darting toward the exit, but his body was pulling him methodically around the row of supporters lining the edge of the room. I got in position and waited. Weirdly, the senator was not shaking hands but rapping fists in Stringer Bell/Avon Barksdale ghetto fashion. I wondered if he was afraid of germs.

He held out his fist. "Thanks for coming," he said.

I rapped knuckles with him, thinking, "Us, nigga!"

"Good luck, sir," I said.

He wandered out the door.

A few hours later, Santorum was out of work, slain, as it were, on the electoral cross. And he didn't just lose — he was stomped, defeated by more than seventeen points. Across the country, Democrats were raising their fists in triumph and pimping the dawn of a "new direction," but there was nothing left for Rick Santorum to do but thank the Lord for his blessings and console his weeping daughter onstage in a surprisingly tactful and moving concession speech at the Omni Hotel in downtown Pittsburgh.

It was a weird performance. Santorum — just days removed from the "terrorism and genocide" bit — wearily called Casey a "fine man." When his supporters tried to boo at the mention of Casey's name, Santorum chided them almost angrily.

In the Rush Limbaugh era, it has never been the habit of Republican politicians to suppress the hatreds of their followers or admit to any unpleasant intrusions of reality. Never give credit, never admit mistakes, never stop lying about the other guy — this is what the Republican base, thanks to people like Santorum, has come to expect of its leaders in the Bush years. But here was Santorum himself, in his final moments on the public stage, refusing to indulge the old-time urge. During his concession speech, at the mention of Casey, catcalls shot through the crowd.

"Please give him a round of applause ... please." Santorum said. "I congratulate him, and I mean that wholeheartedly."

The crowd, creeped out and depressed by this uncharacteristic display of civility, fell silent. They weren't sure how to react. It was like watching Old Yeller die.

Not long after, Santorum stepped off the stage, a look of something like relief on his face. The man who had ushered in the era of divisive politics was being swept out by the same tide, but he wasn't resisting its judgment. Ironically, it looked like a profoundly Christian moment.

Who knows if it really was. Let's hope we never find out.

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ABOUT THIS BLOG

Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. He’s the author of five books and a winner of the National Magazine Award for commentary. Please direct all media requests to taibbimedia@yahoo.com.

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