02/27/2012 09:52 am ET Updated Apr 28, 2012

E Pluribus Un(informed)

Rick Santorum is the GOP's current flavor of the month.

In the national polls, he leads Mitt Romney by a slight margin and Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul by rather large ones. His rise is attributed, depending on who is doing the analyzing, to either a no-nonsense and unapologetic social conservatism that fires up the right wing base or Romney's inability to get that same base to like him as he careens from one position to another, all in the hopes that he can airbrush his record as a former Massachusetts governor into something more conservative than it was (see Exhibit A, Romneycare).

As a Democrat, I am happy to see the Republicans eviscerate themselves, and therefore have a rooting interest in the continuation of their nominating contest up to (and even into) the Tampa convention this summer. It is very difficult for a sitting president to get reelected in the face of an 8-10% unemployment rate; in fact, it has never happened before, excluding FDR's re-election in 1936 (where the rate was north of that mark but had moved appreciably down). The degree of difficulty, however, starts to decrease as perceptions of extremism and incompetence begin to stick to one's opponents.

And the more the Republican candidates talk this year , the stickier those perceptions get.

First there's the extremism. Whether it's on tax cuts or de-regulation or birth control or Iran, the gang of four now vying for the nomination more or less stakes out positions far to the right of any post-New Deal Republicans, Reagan included. The only exception to that rule is Ron Paul on foreign policy generally and Iran in particular. He is consistently libertarian, and in shutting down most of the government while touting a so-called Founders' foreign policy of non-involvement, he would avoid any war in Iran (or elsewhere) and take a minimalist approach to the projection of American military might worldwide. The others, however, worship at the false altar of a view of American exceptionalism that ignores democratic ideals in favor of empire. When the Cold War ended in the late 1980s, America faced (or, perhaps more accurately, created) a choice between a super power extremism that projected world wide military strength on the one hand or a somewhat dialed down projection of military power in favor of the soft power of democratic ideals on the other. Romney, Santorum and Gingrich chose the former.

This often gets them in trouble. One of Gingrich's biggest applause lines has him swearing that no American president should ever "bow to a Saudi king," a reference to Obama's politesse that morphs in Newt's world into the obsequious subservience of one who won't "drill baby drill" America's way to energy independence. This, of course, is not even possible, and while there are indigenous energy sources to exploit -- principally natural gas in the Marcellus shale deposits stretching from West Virginia all the way to western and central New York -- the environmental costs are only beginning to become known. Moreover, this "king bowing" stuff is a bit difficult to take from a politician who has routinely subsidized the oil industry and thus given it over the years an enormous (and unfair) leg up on alternative energy like wind and solar.

Perhaps no American president should ever again "bow to an oil company CEO."

Gingrich, of course, doesn't mean what he says. He is perfectly happy to see an American president bow to Queen Elizabeth and is no doubt overjoyed when such respect is paid to the Pope. These concessions to royal protocol are apparently less offensive when they occur in London or Rome rather than Riyadh. The reality behind Gingrich's comments is the political return he gets in his party by appealing to its xenophobic nativism, another element of the extremism that has now come to characterize the GOP.

Indeed, in the face of the financial meltdown of 2008 and the near depression it occasioned over the last four years, it appears that all the GOP has left is xenophobia. That, at least, is the only rational conclusion one can draw from the combined reality that (1) the party has no new economic ideas, having chosen merely to recycle the failed mantra of tax cuts, deregulation and deficit reduction even in the face of the disaster occasioned by those first two policies and the GOP's hypocritical failure to control the deficit while it actually held power from 2000-2008, and (2) it couches its aversion to all things Obama -- and thus any really new ideas like infrastructure banks, re-regulation of the financial sector, mortgage relief or national health care -- as opposition to the president's putative love affair with European-style socialism. In truth, even as the European Central Bank, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Greece (under protest) and Great Britain follow austerity policies more in keeping with what the Republicans want to do here, the GOP still pretends that Europe is being run by leftists that Obama wants to emulate. If the Republicans were truly serious about criticizing European policy, they'd point out that austerity isn't working over there. It's only making things worse.

But then they'd be agreeing with Obama.

The other perception now sticking to the GOP presidential field is incompetence and this could be their real killer. The country is not so far removed from the era of George W. Bush that it has forgotten his failures. From "no WMD in Iraq" to Katrina to the studied insouciance that let Wall Street invent worthless mortgage backed securities that took us all to the brink of imminent economic destruction, the picture of incompetence was breathtaking. Now, however, the GOP's would be successors to W are simply crafting their own litany of outrageously stupid nostrums and apparently hoping that none of us will notice.

Ron Paul wants to abolish the Federal Reserve and return America to the gold standard, a policy "daily double" that will in one fell swoop eliminate our ability to create liquidity in times of recession or depression and return us to a 19th century economics where recessions were both more frequent and more severe. For his part, Gingrich asserts that he will transform Washington on day one via executive order, which is emblematic of the pompous (and unrealistic) grandiosity typical of him, and Romney claims he will just produce jobs. He never explains how, and if past is prologue, he won't be able to do it. In fact, in his prior life as a leverage buy out specialist at Bain, Romney destroyed more jobs than he ever created, at least here in the USA.

And then there is Santorum, the gift that keeps on giving.

In the last month, he has told us that birth control is the root cause of America's moral decay, that environmentalism is somehow a "theology" at odds with Christianity, and that "e pluribus unum" -- the "out of many, one" Latin inscription on the country's Great Seal, placed there around the time of the founding when the seal was created -- was meant to signify a unified commitment to Judeo-Chrisitan morality. Santorum, however, should either go back to school or demand an immediate refund. And his children, who are being home-schooled, better start wondering about their teachers.

The birth control flap has now enveloped the whole field. It started as a strategic attack on the Health Care Reform Act when the Catholic hierarchy complained that its non-church institutions like hospitals and schools should have a conscience exemption from the requirement that insurance policies provide coverage for reproductive services including birth control. The hierarchy's bona fides was open to question inasmuch as the rule to which they objected was in fact already being followed in a large number of states which had previously been imposing the same requirement. But leaving that aside, the Obama Administration fashioned a compromise that ultimately relieved the Catholic church from having to pay for such services, imposing the cost instead on the insurance companies.

This, however, was not enough for Santorum, who attacked birth control as per se immoral, notwithstanding the fact that (1) it isn't and (2) the vast majority of Americans believe it isn't even if the Catholic hierarchy and Rick says it is.

There has always been a false equivalence at work on this issue. Those who oppose birth control and inveigh against its ostensibly immoral consequences are really opposed to artificial birth control. That, at least, is the Catholic hierarchy's position; in fact, it says that "natural family planning," which involves scheduling sex at times in the female cycle when the woman is not likely to get pregnant, is morally licit and sometimes even required. To my mind, however, this basically kills any immorality claim given the fact that, in the case of natural family planning, the couple is no more open to getting pregnant than they are when using artificial contraception. In both cases, the couple's motive is likely to be the same, namely, sex solely for purposes of pleasure, and it is a circle beyond squaring to condemn one while permitting or praising the other.

Santorum, however, is this month's non-Romney, The first requirement of any non-Romney is that you never trim your sails, and Rick has that down cold. Unlike Mitt, he doesn't wake up in the morning wondering what to say; he just goes on automatic pilot. The only problem is that his ideological GPS is, to put it bluntly, wacky. Calling environmentalism a theology is silly. And turning "e pluribus unum" into a commitment to Judeo-Christian morality is simply wrong. None of the Founders believed that, and the phrase itself was meant to signify the Constitutional union of what had previously been thought of as thirteen independent states. In short, it had nothing to do with religion or morality.

It is probably the case that Santorum knows all this but thinks his mistakes will never matter. If he's betting this way, however, my view is that his odds are long. America already took a chance, and quite recently, on someone -- namely, W -- whose mistakes were routinely discounted.

We won't do that again.

At least not right away.