It is folly, if not sheer madness, to think that a former U.S. senator who lost his last re-election campaign in a home-state landslide could possibly turn around and be elected president.
Or at least that's what conventional wisdom would say. It's a good thing for Rick Santorum that conventional wisdom, especially in politics, is usually preternaturally stupid. It's also a good thing for Rick Santorum that he has a history of making absolute fools of the Washington chattering classes. Santorum, the courageously conservative former two-term U.S. House member and two-term senator from Pennsylvania, is openly considering a run for the White House. Conservative leaders and voters are preternaturally stupid if they don't at least give him a serious hearing.
"The world has changed; America has changed," said Santorum over coffee on June 29. Santorum was too polite to put it in quite the following terms, but I will: When Santorum lost in 2006, the Republican "brand" had been severely defaced by the Bush administration's mangling of the Iraqi war effort (pre-surge) combined with the ham-handed response to Hurricane Katrina and with the horrendous Bush-Hastert big-government axis on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. But the Democrats had not yet had a chance to show their disdain for American traditions of individual liberty, or their disdain for the majority of American voters. That year, 2006, was the year Republicans lost the House and Senate in electoral slaughters nationwide. It was before the buyer's remorse against Obamacare, before the Tea Parties, the town hall revolts, the Scott Brown election in Massachusetts, the sharp movement of independent voters away from the Democrats, and before cultural issues such as the Black Panthers and the NASA Muslim outreach enraged ordinary Americans against leftists alien to middle American mores. The country has moved a long way in Santorum's direction in the past four years.
"In 2006, I was held as a stand-in for George W. Bush running for re-election in a state where George W. Bush's favorable ratings were 31 or 32 percent… and in a state that has 1.2 million more Democrats that Republicans," Santorum said. "Unlike many of my colleagues… who tried to run for the moderate hills, I did not. I ran to the right of Bush. I was talking about Iran's threat when people were already tired of Iraq; I was calling for a commitment to something like what became the 'surge' when nobody else but McCain was doing so. I admit it: I was out of step for 2006. But I think voters in 2012 will look for someone who has the same commitments [to principle] in good times and bad."
Is he whistling past the graveyard? Consider that when this lawyer/MBA first ran for Congress at age 32 in 1990, it was against a seven-term incumbent in a district so heavily Democratic that the National Republican Congressional Committee gave him almost no support because committee (un)wise men thought the race unwinnable. But Santorum won. When he ran for Senate in 1994, he again defeated an incumbent Democrat in a race for which the GOP Washington pooh-bahs gave little support. Again he won. And in 2000, he was expected to lose for re-election; but, running to the right of presidential nominee Bush, Santorum again won while Bush failed to carry Pennsylvania.
Rick Santorum is not a man daunted by long odds; he is a man who beats long odds. And he does it while speaking like a forthright conservative, not by trimming his sails.
Then again, many conservatives point to -- or have conniption fits about -- the one big example where they say Santorum didn't just trim his sails, but let them luff. It was, his critics say, a major, major, absolutely unforgivable transgression in 2004 when Santorum endorsed Arlen Specter for re-election against conservative primary challenger Pat Toomey.
To which Barry Goldwater would again say to these conservatives: Grow up. Seriously, grow the bleep up. Perhaps no unwritten rule in politics is as unwaveringly observed, and deservedly so, as the rule that U.S. Senators of the same party in the same state endorse each other for re-election. They may even despise each other, but they endorse each other. It is part self-preservation and part necessity for the larger party and movement. Publicly open warfare between both senators in a state, if they are from the same party, can do more damage to the greater cause than just about anything imaginable. This is not a rule that applies to senators from different states, or to presidents deigning to interfere in local party primaries. It only applies to same-state, same-party senators, because the opportunities for mischief in those situations are just too great.
But when I asked Santorum about his support for Specter, he didn't use this rule as an excuse. "In retrospect, it was a mistake," he said. "I've admitted that. But you've gotta understand what my thinking was at the time. We had a 51-49 majority in the Senate. George W. Bush was up for a tough re-election fight. My sole focus was, how do we secure our majority, related most importantly to how could we confirm up to three Bush nominees to the Supreme Court. [Democrats were filibustering conservative nominees.] Conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans would be crucial to confirming Supreme Court nominees. Specter personally pledged to me he would support Bush's Supreme Court nominees [absent an ethical issue]."
I pressed Santorum on this. Was this a firm pledge, akin to the no-tax pledge by Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform? Answer: "Specter agreed to support. Absolutely." And, he added, that support indeed proved vital in getting Samuel Alito through the Senate.
"Look, when I was in the Senate, Arlen was with us on a lot of key, close votes when I asked him. Partial-birth abortion, for example."
Maybe, he mused, he over-sold Specter's helpfulness in his own mind. "Arlen caused me many more problems than [the times] he helped me."
Hindsight isn't just 20-20; it's 20-15. Nobody is right ever time when in the middle of the fray. If in 14 years on Capitol Hill, the worst thing Rick Santorum ever did from a conservative standpoint was to support his own in-state colleague for re-election -- and with a key pledge in hand, at that -- then that surely is a failing well worth forgiving. Toomey himself seems to have forgiven Santorum; why should other conservatives hold that grudge?
Looking forward, Santorum sees a looming fight for president in which the only way both to beat Barack Obama and to do so in a way that sets the table for seriously rolling back his policies is for Obama's opponent to be fully and deeply engaged in the broad wells of conservative thought and able, against all establishment media challenges, to explain the conservative approach in ways the public can fully grasp.
"We need a consistent conservative who can articulate for Americans the principles of the founding fathers... and apply them today. Last time we did not have a candidate who could articulate that in any persuasive way. I can."
Editor's Note: This was part one of a two-part column. This one focused on purely political questions. Tomorrow's column will examine Santorum's policy record and prescriptions.