There's a little trick in politics, one that Jean Chrétien's opponents used and one that Stephen Harper's opponents like to use as well: When engaged in an uphill battle, make up a guy who would be easier to beat than the guy you're actually facing. If you can get your supporters to believe strongly enough in that opponent, then undecided voters may come to see him as well.
The hope is that if enough hands clap for Evil Tinker Bell, you can provoke a kind of nationwide hallucination and win.
Naturally, the most formidable opponents often inspire the more outlandish characterizations. This is why, as the U.S. economy has begun to improve, and President Barack Obama's approval ratings with it, two of the candidates for the Republican nomination have stopped campaigning against the man they characterized as Obama the Bumbler, a fairly well-intentioned naïf who simply didn't understand the economy, and started campaigning against someone else entirely: In the case of Rick Santorum, that person is Adolf Hitler.
Yes, that's right: Hitler. This week, Mr. Santorum compared the Republican fight against Mr. Obama to America's involvement in the Second World War, much the way, earlier this month, Canadian Conservative MP Larry Miller compared advocates of gun control to the Fuhrer. I never thought I'd have to devote so much time to this subject – that The Globe and Mail would need a “This week in ‘Who's Hitler?' “ column – but such are the times.
“Remember, the greatest generation, for a year and a half, sat on the sidelines while Europe was under darkness,” Mr. Santorum said this past Sunday during a speech in Georgia. “We think, ‘Well, you know it'll get better. Yeah, he's a nice guy. I mean, it won't be near as bad as what we think. This will be okay.' I mean, yeah, maybe he's not the best guy after a while. After a while you find out some things about this guy over in Europe who's not so good of a guy after all.”
Although he later denied that it was anything other than a standard, run-of-the-mill, entirely Hitlerless Second World War metaphor (the kind he has “used 100 times in my career,” he said), it's pretty clear where Mr. Santorum was going with the inarticulate interior monologue he attributed to the “greatest generation”: Americans need to fight Mr. Obama the way they fought Hitler. No hurry, though: They need only rally to this desperate cause some time around midday on Nov. 5.
Mr. Santorum is most comfortable battling pure evil. In a 2008 tape that came to light this week, he warned that Satan himself had set his sights on the U.S., asking a crowd at a Catholic university, “If you were Satan, who would you attack in this day and age? There is no one else to go after other than the United States – those great vices of pride, vanity and sensuality,” he warned.
His somewhat giddy appearance on the campaign trail this week suggests that he understandably views it as a comparatively easy task to dispose of a mere Hitler over “the father of lies,” whose detailed strategy for taking over America Mr. Santorum outlined: First, he would infiltrate academia, then Hollywood and then, of course, the National Basketball Association.
Notably, it was the right-wing press, more than the left, that leapt to publicize the damaging Satan quotes. The Republican establishment – already uneasy with the speed at which this contest has become about abortion and birth control, something Mr. Santorum feels is “not okay” because “it's a licence to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be” – were clearly unhappy about Mr. Santorum's brightening prospects. They may sense that he actually believes he is fighting a new Hitler, and that's not how the fighting-an-imaginary-opponent gambit is meant to work.
Even after Wednesday night's debate, during which he was under persistent attacks and weathered them poorly, Mr. Santorum is still polling only slightly behind the high-spending but momentum-less front-runner, Mitt Romney. With Mr. Santorum, the Republicans fear that they may have struck Goldwater.
Meanwhile, speaking at Oral Roberts University on Monday, Newt Gingrich told the youthful audience that Mr. Obama is the “most dangerous president in modern American history” and that they faced the risk “some day in your lifetime of losing an American city.”
So as it stands now, Mr. Santorum is battling Hitler and Mr. Gingrich is battling Godzilla. Ron Paul, who is nothing if not consistent, continues to do battle with reality. Only Mr. Romney still pits himself against the actual President – and he loses to him in most polls by a full 10 points.