The season debut of Saturday Night Live featured a wickedly funny fake drug commercial that perfectly nails the self-delusion of some presidential candidates: believing that you'll win, even when all the evidence says you've got no chance in hell.
At first, it's not clear where the fake ad is headed. A woman tells the camera that she's concerned about her husband's "mental illness." That he's "say[ing] things that didn't make any sense." Then the camera pulls back and reveals: The woman is Rick Santorum's wife, watching her husband declare that he'll be our next president.
"That's when I knew. He had dementia," the fake Karen Santorum moans, as SNL's audience laughs.
The wives of Jim Gilmore and Mike Huckabee are similarly bereaved, until all three men start taking a new drug — "Abilify for Candidates" — that cures their presidential delusions. SNL's clips of the fake candidates are pure fiction, but it's not that far from real life.
"I'm ready to lead this country," the actual Rick Santorum said in a speech last week, as he campaigned to win the GOP presidential nomination. "I've got experience to do it, the backbone to do it, and the vision to do it."
Why candidates with low odds run for our highest office
Santorum may be ready to lead, but the country may not be ready for him. The former senator placed 12th in recent polls of GOP candidates, and he has virtually no national support. Of course, Santorum has company: At one point this summer, there were 17 major candidates in the Republican race, all of whom professed to be the best person for the job ... even though a dozen of them were receiving 3 percent or less support in the polls. And that's what SNL was poking fun at.
"Prescribed for 11 specific people," the fake drug's tagline reads. "Return to reality. Feel less confused. Feel happy and sane."
The spoof is brilliant for skewering the delusion necessary to run for president — the conviction that yes, a Rhode Island governor with zero percent national support, or a doctor who's never held public office, are somehow ready to win the nation's most important job. And SNL's sketch also contains an Easter egg that health-care wonks will appreciate. There really is an Abilify — an antipsychotic drug used to treat schizophrenia — with an identical logo, albeit with no American flag colors. (SNL took further creative license and shortened the name of Abilify's active ingredient from aripiprazole to just arirazole. In case you were wondering.)
SNL's fake ad does miss one huge reality: There's usually a method to presidential candidates' madness. Even if they believe they truly are the best person to lead the nation, many politicians tell themselves it's okay being a runner-up, because the exposure of running for president tends to be career-enhancing.
This delusional duality is perfectly captured in What It Takes, Richard Ben Cramer's epic chronicle of the 1988 presidential campaign. Cramer follows a half-dozen presidential candidates as they stump, schmooze, and scheme to win the presidency. Here's a telling passage about then-Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt, who was a second-tier candidate in that year's Democratic primaries:
Of course he wanted to win—wouldn't have tried if he didn't think he could. But when he started... Dick Gephardt didn't think he could lose. Not that he thought himself inexorable victor — no, the odds were always against him. But if he just did well, if he ran a decent race... he'd have to end up better. A national figure, a force for the future!
Gephardt was right: Although he dropped out of the race after being thumped on Super Tuesday, Gephardt's higher profile helped him win the job of House Majority Leader the following year.
There's also another key factor. The spotlight that comes with a presidential campaign is addictive, which is one reason so many also-rans seem to keep running again and again.
Just look at another candidate profiled in What It Takes: Joe Biden. The 1988 presidential campaign was rough on Biden. He was caught badly plagiarizing a speech, followed by allegations that he plagiarized in law school. As his poll numbers began to plummet, Biden dropped out of the race in September, stressed out and politically damaged. Just a few months later, he suffered two brain aneurysms. (Biden did better when he ran for president in 2008, but not by much: he barely broke 1 percent in the Iowa caucus in January, and quit the race that night.)
Yet Biden refuses to rule out running this year — despite every indication that he'd get clobbered by entering the race so late.
But who can blame him? For a politician, being in the national political conversation is intoxicating. The thrill of running another presidential campaign distorts reality. And there's no drug that cures those symptoms — except on SNL.