After my bout of horror yesterday upon reading excerpts from a stump speech by Rick Santorum in Idaho (I wasn’t alone: check out Charles Pierce’s reaction to the same speech, which challenged even his formidable powers of vituperation), I got to thinking about the essential differences between these two men who are battling for the Republican presidential nomination. There are remarkably few policy differences in what they stand for currently. Both signed the “cut, cap and balance” pledge that would require if implemented a shrinkage of the federal government to pre-Great-Society, and perhaps pre-New-Deal levels. Both endorsed Paul Ryan’s budget proposal. Both want big tax cuts, though Mitt’s naturally more focused on the corporate side of the equation while Santorum is interested in using the tax code for counter-cultural social engineering. Both would amend the U.S. Constitution to ban same-sex marriage and abortion. Yes, Rick backs a Personhood Amendment while Mitt, at this point at least, doesn’t. But that’s pretty thin gruel in the way of significant policy differences, and probably little more than those that, say, separated Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008.

The temperamental difference, however, is evident, as Mike Tomasky nicely captured after watching Romney’s CPAC speech:

Romney just doesn’t hate liberals. You can tell he just doesn’t. Then he tries to act like he does, and you can tell it even more. He didn’t grow up in that kind of atmosphere—his dad, though a Republican, was plenty liberal by today’s standards—and later in life he obviously didn’t govern in that kind of atmosphere. And so liberal hatred is simply not woven into his DNA….

The specific moment all this hit me came when he said he’d repeal Obamacare. Huge applause, his biggest applause line of the day. But then, he just moved on. So that was it. One sentence. And I thought, you know, if he really wants to connect with these people on the most visceral level, he’d spend 10 minutes on Obamacare—how evil it is, how it’s exactly the kind of totalitarian garbage those liberals cook up all the time, how these liberals want to take away your freedom step by step, et cetera. Everyone made a big deal out of the fact that he used “conservative,” or a variant thereof, two dozen times in the speech. But more telling is that he used “liberal” only three times, and two of those were sort of neutral.

Santorum clearly does not have that problem.

I’ve always observed that there were two basic kinds of conservatives: those who disagreed with me, and perhaps thought I was a misguided, or a fool, or even in the grip of deeply destructive impulses and opinions and beliefs, but still thought I might be worth arguing with; and those who’d be perfectly happy living in a one-party state where people like me would be silenced or jailed. Review Santorum’s rhetoric in his Boise speech, and it’s pretty clear on which side of the line he falls.

Does that make Santorum more dangerous as a potential president? Probably, though you could also make the case that Romney’s obvious lack of solidarity with genuine liberal-haters means that he will perpetually have to prove himself to them through exceptionally reactionary policies and exceptionally vicious behavior, however insincere. Ultimately, it may not really matter whether the president of the United States authentically considers a sizable minority of his or her fellow-Americans traitors and looters and idol-worshipers and baby-killers, or just governs that way. But the fact remains that listening to Rick Santorum in full feral roar sends cold chills down my spine, while Mitt just leaves me cold, and cynically hoping his habit of mendacity extends to everything he’s telling hard-core conservatives to gain their votes.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.