Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum has ready answers, as explained in yesterday's column, for how he can make a comeback from the shellacking he took when trying for re-election in 2006; but what does he offer conservatives in the way of substance -- and will it sell (if he runs) in both primary and general elections for president in 2012?
As is usual with Sen. Santorum, his focus is unconventional. Because of establishment media absorption with all things abortion- or homosexual-related, the senator's reputation is mainly as a social-issues conservative -- but that's not his main gig. Instead, he spent a great deal of time in the Senate on matters of foreign affairs and defense, and since leaving the Senate has maintained a perch at the Ethics and Public Policy Center focused mainly on what he has called (after Churchill) "The Gathering Storm" of challenges from multiple points abroad, especially related to radical Islam. (Space doesn't permit a full airing of his views, but in short, Santorum advocates regime change by supporting democracy movements and stopping Iran from becoming a nuclear state.) In fact, immediately following my interview with him on June 29, he played host to an erudite forum on Shia eschatology, and how it affects the policies of Iran.
Political gurus usually say that pocketbook issues, not foreign policy (except a hot war), dominate elections. Santorum doesn't agree. It's important, he says, and he doesn't see a single other potential candidate with serious knowledge about what he considers a civilizational life-or-death issue. "Can they [other possible GOP contenders] get out and talk about what I'm talking about today [in the June 29 forum on Iran]?" he asked. "National security and anti-terrorism are going to be a key issue in the campaign."
Lest anybody think Santorum deluded about the issue's political salience, consider his record of being ahead of the curve politically -- and for conservative ends. When first elected to the House, he and now-Minority Leader John Boehner were the two most prominent members of the "Gang of Seven" GOP freshmen who helped push ethics issues front and center in a way that paid big dividends for Republicans in the early 1990s. They helped break, and doggedly pushed, the issues of scandals involving the House bank, the House post office, and abuse of office perks for members -- and the efforts were wildly successful. Conservatives now might more fondly remember the more ideological parts of the 1994 Contract with America, but its first planks were on ethics -- and people in Congress at the time will still tell you that ethics as much as ideology weakened and then toppled the Democratic hegemony. And the ethics push may have gotten absolutely nowhere without the Gang of Seven.
Once in the Senate, Santorum became his chamber's lead sponsor (Florida's Clay Shaw was the under-appreciated hero in the House) of what might rank as the single most successful major government reform of an existing program, ever: the 1996 welfare reform bill. Santorum delved into the bill's nitty-gritty, and he was indefatigable. The resulting law was a triumph, cutting welfare rolls tremendously while encouraging job training, education and new employment.
Santorum is a fiscal conservative and a dedicated supply-sider; his lifetime American Conservative Union rating was 88 -- about the best imaginable for somebody from purple-blue Pennsylvania. Also, almost unique among Republican senators not on the Judiciary Committee, Santorum fully grasped the importance of federal judgeships and fought hard on judicial nominations when others weaseled out. His staff usually provided more of an entrée to conservative judicial enthusiasts than did the staffs of the Judiciary Committee or the party's Senate leader. And Santorum understood that judicial fights aren't just important in principle, but good politics too, because the public agrees with conservatives on judges.
All of which does lead, inevitably, to the Pennsylvanian's reputation as being hard-right on social issues. While he did author the bill outlawing partial birth abortions and also the Born Alive Infant Protection Act, and while his conservative Catholic principles are unyielding, he doesn't go as out of his way to raise these issues as the establishment media would have folks believe. Still, he won't run from them, either.
"I am a cultural conservative," he told me with what sounded like an almost fierce pride. "I am not afraid of talking about those issues. Not a lot of people out there are comfortable in their skins on these issues. I am. With me, social conservatives will not be on the back of the bus."
Look, he says: No matter what Republican gets the nomination, the establishment media is going to portray the nominee as a hard-line, near-radical, conservative. "If they can make John McCain into a conservative [as he said they did in 2008], they can turn anyone into a conservative. If we are going to be portrayed as conservatives anyway, we might as well have a candidate who really believes it and who can passionately and courageously articulate those beliefs."
That's what Santorum has been doing since he left the Senate, with regular appearances on Fox News, a weekly column in the Philadelphia Inquirer, and a gig as the permanent, once-weekly "guest host" of Bill Bennett's radio show. He sounds good, he makes sense, and he speaks forthrightly for conservative causes.
Not only that, but Santorum is personable. He once had a reputation for abrasiveness, but if that were ever true, it doesn't seem so now. For a year or so (2008) I worked in the same building as Santorum, and if anybody ran into him in the elevator or the lobby, he was unfailingly approachable and friendly.
As for the Republican nomination for president…. Well, I'm saying that Sarah Palin is far closer to being a prohibitive favorite for the nomination than most Washington hands yet understand. And Indianans Mitch Daniels and Mike Pence each offer serious bona fides and political skills to the conservative movement if one of them wants to run, as does South Carolina's Jim DeMint in the unlikely event he takes the plunge. Louisiana's political calendar doesn't favor Bobby Jindal, but he could be a superb conservative presidential choice as well.
But even with all these possibilities, conservatives do themselves and their cause a huge disservice if they don't take a Rick Santorum candidacy seriously. It would be crazy not to acknowledge that the odds seem long. But he has beaten the odds, repeatedly, before, and he knows how to leverage public opinion for conservative ends.
"I'm someone who moves the ball," he told me. "I get a lot of stuff done."