Lightning Rod: The Return of Rick Santorum

Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pennsylvania) knew he had lost his re-election fight at 5 P.M. on Election Day. After receiving the news, he joined his wife, Karen, and their six children at their hotel suite. The Santo- rums always planned to “finish well.” Now, that meant taking their children with them when they voted at the Penn Hills polling station. The Santorums capped the evening with the celebration of Mass. They included Rick’s winning opponent, State Treasurer Bob Casey, in their prayers, as they had every day during that long campaign. One attendee remembers “a beautiful Mass, filled with grace.”

At 8 P.M., Rick Santorum officially lost the election and congratulated Casey on his victory. Soon after, television personality Sean Hannity called to express his regrets. Santorum responded, “Why?” He felt at peace.

Hannity, no doubt, scratched his head at the senator’s response. During the months leading to the election, Santorum hungered for victory, crushing Casey in their debates—the fruit of hours of vigorous prepping. But the senator’s calm acceptance of defeat hinted at the paradox that accompanied his meteoric rise to the top of the Senate leadership and befuddled his colleagues. For him, politics wasn’t ultimate. Thus, he could deliver on a host of tough legislative goals, from welfare reform to the partial-birth abortion ban, without retreating from controversy or pandering to political correctness. With one contentious exception, he seemed resistant to the corruption of ideals that marks the careers of most politicians. And even that “exception,” some allies contend, wasn’t a violation of the common good, but a necessary step to advance it.

Since the election, Santorum has remained true to form. Rejecting gold-plated offers to make big money as a banker or lobbyist, he has chosen passion over pragmatism. Surprising some intimates and many supporters, he accepted an offer from the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a Washington, D.C.—based conservative think tank, to found and direct its America’s Enemies program. The initiative will raise public awareness of the new correlation of anti-American forces that Santorum believes will present a growing threat to U.S. national security. He will work on “identifying, studying, and heightening awareness of the threats [that are] increasingly casting a shadow over our future and violating religious liberty around the world.”

 

One close friend believes he has picked a tough mission: “We [are] going through a period of appeasement now. He is playing the role of prophet, and he will suffer in this role.”

Santorum lost the election by 18 points. But that doomed political battle hasn’t quashed his basic style. He retains the ferocious energy and brash courage that fueled his rise to power and disarmed or infuriated political activists— depending on whether they accepted or rejected his premises. Bono—the U2 rock star and savvy activist on third- world debt and global AIDS admires Santorum, an occasional collaborator. But in a published interview, Bono described the senator’s provocative rhetoric as “a kind of Tourette’s disease—he will always say the most unpopular thing.” Bono was probably referring to the uproar over his friend’s remarks on touchy subjects like Boston’s clerical sex-abuse scandal, Terri Schiavo, working mothers, and same- sex marriage. Most politicians tiptoe away from such issues; Santorum seems to gravitate toward them.

Given the harsh partisan atmosphere on Capitol Hill, Santorum can’t help but enjoy his hiatus from politics. In April, he briefly resurfaced to applaud a great pro-life victory: the Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, which he authored in 2003. But now his relatively empty calendar has allowed him precious time with his wife and home-schooled children, absent the tense struggle of juggling legislative responsibilities and obligations to constituents. But even as a senator, he walked in the door of his Virginia home by 7 P.M. most nights. When not campaigning for re-election, he devoted weekends to tending his vegetable garden, driving the kids around on the lawn mower, and comparing prices at Costco. It was rare for him to schedule political events on weekends.

This is the man his wife and children know, says Karen, who co-wrote a book with her husband about the death of their child Gabriel and jealously guarded the senator’s family time during his years in office. Last year, she arranged for the kids to join his campaign road trips across Pennsylvania, making their time together a dizzying field trip that featured factories, rural towns, and cultural events. But there was a poignant dimension to the 2006 election year as well. This time, the older children were mature enough to feel dismay at the often hostile treatment meted out to their father, whether in the form of angry editorials, political pro-tests, or his ultimate defeat at the polls. “It’s sad that media stories made him look horrible, because there is a beautiful, tender side to Rick,” says Karen. “As busy as he was all those years, I can count on both hands how often he wasn’t home to tuck the kids into bed and say prayers.”

This post-election interlude has yielded time to ponder the victories and missteps that defined Santorum’s career in the Senate. Supporters hope it’s the right moment to correct his public image as a right-wing extremist intolerant of Americans who don’t fit a Father Knows Best storyline. The fact is, his faith-driven political activism has consistently transcended party ideology. He became the Senate’s major force on poverty and global AIDS/HIV, for example, though news coverage of such work has been sparse. If you Google “Santorum” you’ll dig up plenty of controversy—his Virginia-based family’s use of Pennsylvania school-district funds for his children’s “cyberschool,” for example. Meanwhile, it’s tough to find a story profiling his monumental work on behalf of Darfur.

An editor from one major daily in Santorum’s home state acknowledges that some negative stories, like the cyberschool issue, generated “way too many inches of column” when compared with coverage of his legislative record. But that editor argues that Santorum also drove the media’s treatment: “He is confident and upfront. He thinks what he says is right, and believes he can persuade others of his point of view.” Like other reporters who have covered the senator, he did not want to be quoted by name.

In the final days before the election, Santorum’s de-fenders sought to correct his public image. New York Times columnist David Brooks noted that Democrats attacked him as an “ideological misfit,” even though their target led “almost every . . . piece of antipoverty legislation [that] surfaces in Congress.” Why, then, weren’t liberals embracing him? “If Santorum were pro-choice,” argued Brooks, “he’d be a media star and a campus hero.” A Wall Street Journal op-ed by Peggy Noonan observed that Santorum’s voting record suggested the zeal of a “Catholic social reformer” of a bygone era—say, Robert Kennedy. A 2004 National Journal analysis underscored Noonan’s assertion, describing the Pennsylvanian’s voting record as “slightly to the left of the GOP center.”

Santorum would welcome a positive gloss on his public image, but he doesn’t expect it. The America’s Enemies program will give him another shot at reframing national security issues, and that will pull him back into a vitriolic national security debate that has left few Republicans unscathed. During the 2006 campaign the senator stood against the anti-war current and was ridiculed for it. At a town hall appearance in suburban Philadelphia, he argued that “this war is as serious a war as we have ever fought, and we have the politics of today trying to blow this off as some sort of creation of a bunch of people in the White House.” Then, during the final months before the election, Santorum surprised some political analysts by moving beyond his defense of the war to call for a more targeted response to Iran. Many questioned the wisdom of his late introduction of complex foreign policy themes. But friends suggest that once Casey’s lead became insurmountable, the senator threw himself into a subject that has long stirred his passions.

Iran has been on Santorum’s mind for years. Twice he sponsored “regime change” bills designed to “hold the current regime in Iran accountable for its threatening behavior and to support a transition to democracy in Iran.” Late in his campaign, Santorum placed Tehran at the center of a broader, more comprehensive threat to U.S. national security. In a speech titled “The Gathering Storm”—a reference to Winston Churchill’s prescient warning of fascism’s rise across the globe—Santorum heralded an era of conflict between free, democratic nations and “Islamic fascism.” U.S. foreign policy had yet to establish a new way of thinking about the world, he argued, and Washington had yet to effectively communicate its new mission to the American public.

Santorum acknowledges that the GOP’s defeat at the polls confirms its failure to defend the Iraq war as a critical mission within a larger, more complex offensive against anti-American forces around the globe. “We have to do a better job educating and informing the American public, and a better job on the ground technically in Iraq,” he admits. But he also won’t apologize for his own backing of the Iraq war. And he suggests that the GOP defeat was a consequence of the American people’s indifference or ignorance of the threat posed by Islamic extremism. It takes some prodding before he admits that growing public dis-enchantment with the war is—at least in part—a response to the Bush administration’s apparent failure to plan for a chaotic and violent post-invasion period.

The America’s Enemies program is the fruit of intelligence briefings that Santorum received during his Senate years. In his view, Iran’s role in fomenting Islamic extremism was one key theme that surfaced repeatedly, yet the data did not prompt an adequate response. Until recently, “Iran’s diplomatic presence, its influence on the Iraqi government, and [its] funding of insurgents was a problem,” he reports. “But there didn’t seem to be any decisive action on it. Either Iran is good at hiding information on its activities, or our intelligence is thoroughly incompetent. Even now our response to Iran’s role hasn’t gone far enough.”

Now that Democrats control both the House and the Senate, Santorum must weigh the best strategy for creating a sense of urgency about Iran and other nations hostile to U.S. interests. He has chosen several forums for presenting his ideas: speeches that outline the “Gathering Storm” scenario, and a new job as a Fox News commentator. Following Al Gore’s lead, he also plans to produce a short documentary that explores the evidence on Iran’s role in a broader alliance of anti-American forces scattered across the globe. All his efforts will “connect the dots” between Tehran, Kim Jong Il’s North Korea, and Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, among other nations. In recent months, both Democratic and Republican leaders have begun to address Tehran’s aggressive policies. At issue: Iran’s increasingly open efforts to arm Iraq’s Shiite insurgents with deadly roadside explosive devices, and its ongoing production of uranium—allegedly for nuclear arms, a policy that has twice prompted UN Security Council resolutions to impose economic sanctions on Tehran.

The public debate on Iran’s geopolitical strategy has only just begun, but Santorum aims to stay a step ahead. He is concerned that Tehran and its allies will threaten U.S. access to foreign oil. Venezuela is the third-largest OPEC producer, and Chavez has made no secret of his antipathy toward the Bush administration, ridiculing the president during a 2006 speech before the UN General Assembly. Bush, meanwhile, recently visited Brazil, the globe’s largest producer of ethanol. The presidential visit sought to project the United States as a countervailing force to Venezuela’s growing influence in the region. Bush has made a start, but Santorum wants a “more aggressive energy policy—the domestic issue most related to the national security concerns of our country.” Not surprisingly, he sees it as a “wedge issue” that would benefit the GOP: “Democrats don’t support any energy development that is practical to meet the relatively near-term needs of this country. That’s key to our security, and the strength of the economy.”

Santorum’s call for a smarter, more assertive energy policy could catch the public’s attention. But, given the messenger, the “Gathering Storm” scenario might be dismissed as an alarmist reprise of Bush’s earlier charges regarding Saddam Hussein’s WMDs. “It’s fair to say that he’s a lightning rod,” agreed Ed Whelan, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “He has the courage to speak out on the dangers that others would like to ignore. He anticipates challenges over the next decade or two.”

In 2003, the senator’s prophetic line of thought propelled him into much deeper trouble than he is likely to face now. During an interview with an AP reporter, Santorum predicted the dire, if unintended, consequences of the Supreme Court’s decision in Lawrence v. Texas that lifted the state ban on sodomy. Gay activists had applauded Lawrence and heralded it as the first step in the ultimate legalization of same-sex marriage. But Santorum argued that “if you can do whatever you want to do, as long as it’s in the privacy of your own home,” then the state could face legal challenges prosecuting incest and adultery cases.

A firestorm ensued, with gay activists accusing the senator of equating homosexual relationships with incest and adultery. Santorum and his conservative allies fought back, insisting that his statements were taken out of context: He only addressed the legal dangers posed by Lawrence. But the damage from the interview could not be contained. Santorum’s reputation as a right-wing bigot spread through casual references on television sitcoms and ribald jokes on late-night talk shows.

The charges returned during the 2006 election year. Santorum still failed to convince his critics of his good intentions. More recently, though, an ironic footnote to this controversy has surfaced. The Supreme Court may hear an incest case in which the accused cites the Lawrence decision as a shield against state prosecution of his sexual relation-ship with an adult stepdaughter. Santorum’s precise argument—that the Lawrence decision would open the door to state-sanctioned deviant behavior—may soon get its day in court. The Supreme Court may hear the argument this year, or wait for a less-complicated case.

In late 2005, Santorum was again under fire when his book It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good was published. Liberal bloggers obtained copies of the book before its official release date, sifted through its pages for controversial passages, and quickly rushed to define its message before Santorum began his book tour. The author’s positions on abortion, contraception, traditional marriage, and child-rearing were criticized as demonstrating a lack of respect for women.

National Journal columnist Jonathan Rauch described a very different book in his Reason magazine review:

Santorum wrestles intelligently, often impressively, with the biggest of big ideas: freedom, virtue, civil society, the Founders’ intentions. Although he is a Catholic who is often characterized as a religious conservative, he has written a book whose ambitions are secular. As its subtitle promises, it is about conservatism, not Christianity.

The book, wrote Rauch, challenged the small-government, libertarian thinking that defines elements of the American conservative alliance. But Rauch’s rich appreciation for the senator’s argument never made it onto the talk-show circuit. Instead, the anti-woman characterization showed surprising staying power. After the book’s release, Santorum lost 10 points on his favorability rating and never regained that ground.

During a book promotion appearance on Tucker Carlson’s The Situation Room, Santorum disputed a former staffer’s characterization of him as “not simply … a politician and a policy man, but as something of a Catholic missionary.” The “missionary” label clearly made him uncomfortable, yet it offered one explanation for the rhetoric and actions that often baffled or antagonized the public. At times, Santorum has appeared unaware, or uncaring, of the way this missionary impulse the decision to visit the parents of Terri Schiavo at her Florida hospice, for example—could be misconstrued as political showboating. That said, aides have long confirmed the futility of persuading Santorum to alter his approach. “He told me, ‘I have never made any decision in office based on my self-interest. Sometimes I have suffered and sometimes I haven’t,” one campaign adviser remembers.

Santorum’s willingness to make choices that run counter to his own self-interest has even hurt him with his natural allies—the GOP’s conservative base. Back in 2004, his decision to endorse Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania), a pro-abortion stalwart poised to command the chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee, rather than Rep. Pat Toomey, his pro-life challenger, angered many conservatives. But those close to him say he believed he had no choice. At the time, he was certain that Bush would have a chance to nominate a justice for the nation’s highest court, but the party lacked the Senate majority it needed to confirm a nominee. The conservative base mistrusted Specter, but he could win in a general election. Toomey could not. When Specter’s victory at the polls was confirmed, recalls one friend, “Rick felt nothing. He turned off the television and went to bed. As a Senate leader, he needed Specter’s vote; he needed to get this done.”

The internecine party fight embittered pro-life Republicans, though most concede that Specter performed well during the recent Supreme Court confirmation battles. The deeper problem is that conservative activists believe that the GOP leadership exploits its political networks during election time but doesn’t work hard enough to secure vital anti-abortion and pro-marriage legislation. The irony, of course, is that no one accomplished more for the pro-life movement during his Senate career than Rick Santo-rum. He played a critical role in the passage of several key bills: the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act, the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, and the Unborn Victims of Violence Act. Sponsorship of these bills reflected an incremental pro- life strategy to ban abortion by reclaiming the moral high ground—exposing the brutality of abortion procedures and affirming the fundamental dignity of unborn human life. On the Senate floor, Santorum was the undaunted general of the campaign.

The idea is to ‘plant premises’ in the law, begin a conversation with the pro-choice side, and save babies along the way,” explains Hadley Arkes, professor of jurisprudence at Amherst College, who first proposed the strategy in a 1988 National Review article. “Many people call themselves ‘pro- choice,’ but think abortion can be justly restricted at various points. In the case of Partial Birth Abortion, for example, we are asking them to confront this question: Does Roe secure a woman’s right to an effective abortion or her right to a dead child?” Asked to explain Santorum’s role in advancing this strategy, Arkes laughed as he recalled one Senate aide’s remark: “Santorum is the one guy who is willing to pull the trigger. Other people talk about it, but he does it.” The senator projected the power of this new pro-life offensive in a 1999 Senate debate on partial-birth abortion. There he dueled with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-California), creating a dramatic moment of intense political theater:

Santorum: What we are talking about here with partial birth, as the senator from California knows, is a baby is in the process of being born—

Boxer: “The process of being born.” This is why this conversation makes no sense, because to me it is obvious when a baby is born. To you it isn’t obvious.

Santorum: Maybe you can make it obvious to me. So what you are suggesting is if the baby’s foot is still inside of the mother, that baby can then still be killed.

Boxer: No, I am not suggesting that in any way!

Santorum: I am asking.

Boxer: I am absolutely not suggesting that. You asked me a question, in essence, when the baby is born.

Santorum: I am asking you again. Can you answer that?

Boxer: I will answer the question when the baby is born. The baby is born when the baby is outside the mother’s body. The baby is born.

Santorum: . . . But, again, what you are suggesting is if the baby’s toe is inside the mother, you can, in fact, kill that baby.

Boxer: Absolutely not.

Santorum: OK. So if the baby’s toe is in, you can’t kill the baby. How about if the baby’s foot is in?

Boxer: You are the one who is making these statements.

Santorum: We are trying to draw a line here.

Boxer: I am not answering these questions! I am not answering these questions.

In similar exchanges throughout the country, the American public began to reconsider Roe, once deemed “settled law.”

“The ‘premises strategy’ was great,” observes Bill Wickerman, policy adviser to former Tennessee senator Bill Frist, who applauds Santorum’s critical role: “The reason we’ve seen a dramatic decrease in abortion in the last years, is because of the ‘re-stigmatizing’ of abortion through debates on partial-birth abortion.”

Now, with the Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, the Arkes-Santorum strategy has helped the pro-life movement reach a critical milestone. In Santorum’s words: “For the first time in over 35 years, the Supreme Court balanced the interests of the two individuals directly involved in an abortion and found for the interest of the innocent child.”

Santorum’s leadership will be missed; many activists al-ready fret about the GOP’s post-election “leadership vacuum.” Few Republican senators are willing either to provoke the kind of partisan broadsides Santorum experienced routinely, or to prod timid colleagues to stick out their own necks.

Still, Whelan, Santorum’s new colleague, believes he will accomplish a great deal from his post at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “He has a lot more time to devote to the issues of greatest interest to him, to develop a strategy designed for greatest impact,” says Whelan. “He had a tough balancing act with re-election planning and legislative responsibilities. Now, he’ll be liberated to think more strategically.” Certainly, pro-lifers will be pleased to learn that Santorum will remain involved with some social policy issues, particularly the confirmation of originalist jurists to the Supreme Court and the federal bench. He will also assist efforts to develop a domestic policy reform agenda that can set the course for the conservative movement.

Whelan expects that the senator, once dubbed the “political piñata,” will receive better treatment in the more sedate policy world. While he was on Capitol Hill, “plenty of folks had Rick lined up as a big target and were ready to pound on him,” Whelan recalls. Now that his colleague has left public office, life will be different—or will it? Santorum has always been the one guy who is willing to pull the trigger, and there’s no reason to think the Left will stand for it now.

Joan Frawley Desmond

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Joan Frawley Desmond has written for the Wall Street Journal, First Things, and the National Catholic Register, among other publications.

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