"In every other issue that concerned the Union, the voice which spoke in most potent tones was that of Pennsylvania." -- Henry Adams, writing in his The History of the United States of America 1801-1817
Early November, 2006.
Pennsylvania United States Senator Rick Santorum, on the edge of what will be a seemingly career-ending election defeat (he would lose his re-election bid days later by a crushing 18 points) is refusing -- yet again -- to back down.
There are, as always in a U.S. Senate race, a clutch of concerns that have voters focused. From economics to the social issues, Santorum has decided opinions on them all. He is a thorough-going believer in free markets and as fervent a supporter of traditional marriage as he is an opponent of abortion. But the issue that has riveted the state in watching his imminent defeat is his repeated -- passionate -- refusal to back away from his staunch support of the war against Islamic fascism. He supported the U.S. war in Afghanistan -- launched in response to the 9/11 attacks -- and he voted defiantly in favor of the Iraq War.
Now, with the latter war becoming unpopular and President George W. Bush sinking like a stone in the polls and Santorum's own re-election literally at stake, Santorum refuses to budge. Period. Absolutely, totally, without question he refuses to abandon that most Reaganesque of conservative principles -- peace through strength.
As he speaks this night to a crowd standing a mere handful of miles from Carlisle's renowned United States Army War College -- the school whose graduates include American military legends Pershing, Patton, Eisenhower, Bradley, Schwarzkopf and Tommy Franks -- no one is more aware than Santorum that at the other end of the state is the now sacred farm field in Shanksville. Shanksville. The site where the heroic passengers of United Flight 93 crashed to a horribly violent death. A knowing death as they valiantly fought off the fourth attack in a morning of attacks by violent American enemies determined to use yet another civilian airliner in one last 9/11 assault, this one on either the Capitol of the United States or the White House.
Introduced to the crowd of supporters by former Attorney General John Ashcroft, Santorum's voice is soft, weary but strong. I was present for the occasion, and wrote it up this way:
"I look around and I see these children and all of the kids here..." he says, his head shaking almost imperceptibly, "...we are faced with a great enemy and we have a burden before us…. Because the way the Democrats are talking, it's pretty clear what their agenda will be." He pauses. "Let me tell you what it means. It means whether we are going to be able to confront the evil that is in front of us… as opposed to giving Iran, North Korea and others...to give them the time to develop the weapons of mass destruction… and project devastation across the world. That's what we have in store for us if we do not act now and stop them now.… The Democrats want to retreat, they want to play politics."
Except for a child's cry the room is completely still. "Look," he says, "I voted for this war. There's nothing that bothers me more, that… that…" -- here Santorum stumbles, a tremor of emotion in his voice a moment before he plows on -- "… that makes me suffer more than seeing the men and women in uniform dying… and civilians dying...But I remind you that while it's a great price… a great price, it's small in comparison to the price that would be wreaked on the civilian population of this country and around the world if terrorists are given the time to arm.…"
A shout goes up from the crowd, a man's voice. "That's right!" Murmurs of agreement and assent ripple through the room, heads nod, the mothers along with the mullets. Applause erupts.
"The fact that we have been safe for over five years is not an accident." Santorum turns and gestures to former Attorney General John Ashcroft, the Missourian having taken time from Missouri's own heated Senate race to pitch for the Pennsylvanian. "It is because great men like John Ashcroft put the Patriot Act together.… it's because courageous people were willing to stand up and take on the enemy where they are instead of waiting for them to attack here. We have been on offense, and what the Democrats want us to do is go on defense.… That's what this race is about. Ultimately it is about the security of your family...."
The drama is interrupted as Santorum's five-year old son Patrick squiggles and distracts the audience as well as his father. "Including Pat," Santorum says, the audience breaking out into laughter, the tension in the room released as the little boy grins. "This race," Pat's father resumes, "this race will make a difference to the future of our country.… This election cycle, John Ashcroft said, will be one that history will look back on and say we either made the right call, did the right thing, stood up and confronted evil before it became too late. Or… or we made a mistake that could cost our country dearly….. This decision is in the hands of a handful of people...the security of our country… the lives of your children and grandchildren, their safety and security, not just your children and grandchildren but your lives are on the line.… So I'm asking you to work as if your lives depended on it… because they very well may."
Days later the people of Pennsylvania went to the polls and voted to return Rick Santorum to private life. Many observers thought he was finished.
As I also noted at the time:
But there is one thing that has been established without doubt.
At the very real risk of losing his Senate seat Rick Santorum has made his stand. He has made it with heart and with incredible political courage. The irony, however unintended, is not unlike Abraham Lincoln's tenacious refusal to back away from his anti-slavery stance in his famous losing 1858 Senate race against Democrat Stephen A. Douglas…..
Whether Rick Santorum's race ends in a win, a loss or an unlikely draw, his conduct in this election will ensure him of a leading role in national politics for years to come. In the spirit of Browning's line from "The Patriot," the Pennsylvania Senator has left nothing undone in his fight to awaken Americans to the danger he sees ahead. Churchill-like, he refuses to yield.
Whatever else his immediate audience thinks as they walk out into the darkness gathering over Carlisle, they know with certainty they have just seen that rarity in American politics.
Not a full six years from that crisp autumn night in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, now-former Senator Rick Santorum is getting the last laugh on his more vociferous Pennsylvania critics as he stands poised to make one of the most remarkable comebacks in recent political history with the possible exception of Newt Gingrich. Poll after poll after poll, from CNN/Time to the Des Moines Register to Rasmussen, show Santorum surging into the top tier of GOP presidential candidates, neck and neck with Mitt Romney and Ron Paul, pulling distinctly in front of Bachmann, Perry, and the resurrected Gingrich.
Perhaps not since ABC News ran a post-election 1962 special called "The Political Obituary of Richard Nixon" (which infuriated in the day for featuring convicted Communist spy Alger Hiss, whose exposure by Nixon launched the latter's career) has a candidate's career been buried so prematurely. That sound you may hear in the other 49 states is the grinding of teeth by Santorum's Pennsylvania liberal critics.
Raising the obvious question that has emerged after skeen-teen 2011 GOP debates. In a race that has long since come clear as one between the moderate, Establishment-favorite Romney and the "non-Romney" candidate of the party's GOP base -- is Rick Santorum now the final choice in the latter category? After dallying with Bachmann, Perry, Cain, and Gingrich, is Rick Santorum the unofficial yet mystically mutually agreed on compromise? The conservative who will rally the base to take on the GOP Establishment? And either win outright, defeating Romney for the top spot, or make it impossible for Romney to select anyone else as a Romney ticket's number two?
If either of these two things occur -- and at this point both are more than plausible -- conservatives will feel more than vindicated in getting a Reagan-style one of their own.
His liabilities? Thoroughly vetted here in Pennsylvania, Santorum angered conservatives with his support for earmarks and especially for his standing by his liberal Republican GOP Senate colleague Arlen Specter in Specter's 2004 GOP primary challenge from then Congressman Pat Toomey, a decided conservative. The race was close, Specter won, and two years later part of Santorum's losing margin came from furious conservatives who sought to punish him for not backing Toomey. (Today, of course, Toomey is finally in the Senate, having driven Specter from the GOP race in 2009 with Specter losing a Democratic primary in 2010.)
And there are the grittier anti-Santorum arguments that will inevitably be pounced on by liberals in a national vetting.
When a newborn infant child -- a boy named Gabriel -- died after only two hours of life, Santorum and wife Karen took the baby's body home for the night so the siblings Gabriel would never grow up with would have the chance to know they had a brother and to privately and properly mourn. Eventually, Karen Santorum wrote a book about Gabriel's hours of life.
Then there was Santorum's opposition to the 2003 Supreme Court decision Lawrence v. Texas. The 6-3 decision struck down a Texas sodomy statute as unconstitutional. Typically, Santorum, a lawyer, remarked that Lawrence would open the door to demands to expand the so-called right to "privacy" with considerable "devastating consequences."
In a typical example of how the liberal media game works, Santorum noted later that he was quoted thusly:
"And if the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual (gay) sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything."
Notice anything here? The word "gay" -- appearing above in parentheses exactly as it did in the original story by Associated Press reporter Lara Jakes Jordan -- was never said by Santorum. Never. Period. No, in fact, the word was inserted by AP reporter Jakes. Leading, of course, to the inevitable charge that Santorum was comparing homosexuality to incest and polygamy, which, of course, he was not. What he was saying -- as in fact did Justice Antonin Scalia in his dissent from Lawrence -- was that the Lawrence decision was yet one more step in an ongoing legal process that would ultimately lead to the elimination of traditional marriage between a man and a woman as a privileged institution.
Now, eight years later, Santorum has been proved correct. In an attempt to smear him the media picked up his illustration of all the kinds of "consensual sex" that would now be on their way to legalization. In a sarcastic moment Santorum used the colorful phrase "man on dog" sex -- and that, but of course, was precisely the phrase the Pennsylvania media picked up on. Instead, of course, focusing on his legal reasoning.
As it turns out, inevitably time has proved Santorum absolutely correct. Not only is gay marriage on its way to being legalized but the move is on to legalize other relationships as well on grounds of privacy. Recently prominent George Washington University Law Professor and liberal Jonathan Turley took to the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times to argue the case for legalizing polygamy. Wrote Turley in July of 2011:
In his dissent in Lawrence, Justice Antonin Scalia said the case would mean the legalization of "bigamy, same-sex marriage, adult incest, prostitution, masturbation, adultery, fornication, bestiality and obscenity."
Justice Scalia is right in one respect, though not intentionally. Homosexuals and polygamists do have a common interest: the right to be left alone as consenting adults. Otherwise he's dead wrong. There is no spectrum of private consensual relations -- there is just a right of privacy that protects all people so long as they do not harm others.
But for siding with Scalia for the once unremarkable act of defending traditional marriage -- something even President Obama continues to do -- the presentation of the AP story was used as a club to hammer Santorum as a bigot. The same Santorum who, remember, was the employer of a gay aide.
And the ultimate kicker here? The AP reporter who inserted the word "(gay)" in her story? Lara Jakes Jordan? She was the wife of one Jim Jordan -- who, in 2003 when the story was written -- just happened to be the first presidential campaign manager for Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, the Democrats' eventual 2004 presidential nominee. There was, but of course, not a word of that not so tiny conflict in the AP story.
Interestingly, another supposed liability in Santorum's famous losing re-election race (in the eyes of some Pennsylvania political observers I spoke with at the time) was Santorum's book.
The Senator had written It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good in 2005, a year before his re-election. The book was vintage Santorum. Smart, wonkish yet decidedly passionate, the book was a full-fledged defense of the family by the Catholic father of six (and now seven.) Understanding full well that he was elected by constituents in what Arlen Specter himself had described as a blue (liberal Democrat) state, Santorum unhesitatingly took on the pre-Obama, pre-eminent liberal of the day -- then-New York Senator Hillary Clinton and her famous book as First Lady, It Takes a Village.
The two arguments, paired side-by-side, reflected perfectly the opposing choices of a statist society (the Clinton argument) or a society whose pillars are family and individual freedom. In a state twice carried by Bill Clinton (and later by Senator Clinton over then-Senator Barack Obama in the Democrats' 2008 state primary) Santorum's book was, depending on one's point of view, either the ultimate in political suicide or the act of a decided conservative leader who could have cared less about the consequences of taking a stand for conservative values.
What does all of the above really mean?
In short, Rick Santorum has a trail a mile long that -- like Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich and any and all conservatives on the national scene before them from Goldwater to Reagan -- will subject him to a liberal mudslide of mocking ridicule, accusations of bigotry and sheer utter contempt.
And therein lies his strength.
Rick Santorum is many things. Stupid and dumb are not two of them. He is more than capable of taking a punch -- and returning it.
What Rick Santorum is really all about is conservatism. He is smart, a man with depth, intellectual curiosity, the ability to persevere, a man of deep religious faith and a wonderful family man to boot. He is, make no mistake, a passionate man. And yes, that Santorum passion sometimes translates as being impatient, brash, and aggressive. The latter qualities will surely grate on some, while the former will be repeatedly impressive as the spotlight finally shines.
All in all… not bad for a compromise candidate who may be in the process of finally being settled upon by Iowans and others as the last Not Romney candidate still standing.
Maybe whatever happens in Iowa will lead to Rick Santorum eventually being the Republican nominee.
Maybe Iowa will mean he does well enough to be paired with Romney or someone else as the Republican vice-presidential nominee.
But whatever happens, one thing is certain.
Rick Santorum -- with or without a Senate seat or the White House or any other office -- is here to stay.
Reagan conservatism lives.