November 21, 2005
A CASEY THEY’LL LET TALK
The Democratic party is happy with Bob Casey Jr., challenging Sen. Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania
JOHN J. MILLER
Nobody will ever accuse Bob Casey of lacking ambition. When he announced in March that he would run against GOP senator Rick Santorum, he had served as Pennsylvania’s state treasurer for fewer than seven weeks. It was not the first time that the meats from one of his campaigns did coldly furnish the tables of another. In 2000, Casey waited only two weeks between his reelection as auditor general and his filing of papers to run for governor. That effort didn’t work out for him — he lost a hard-fought primary in the spring of 2002 — but the failure did little to slow his political drive. Before long, Casey set his sights on the state treasurer’s post. For the last five years, even as he has held one office, he has always seemed to grasp for another. Talk about the permanent campaign.
Casey’s next election day is still a year off, but his effort to unseat Santorum has already shifted into high gear. From a Democratic perspective, it could hardly be going any better: The challenger has led from the start, and an October poll put him ahead of the senator by a wide margin, 52 percent to 36 percent. The stakes are high for conservatives, who see Santorum as one of their strongest allies in Washington, as well as for liberals, who probably dislike Santorum more than any other senator since the retirement of Jesse Helms. Whatever the outcome, the Pennsylvania contest promises to become the most-watched Senate race of 2006. It is also one of the most fascinating, and its results will carry important lessons for both Democrats and Republicans.
That’s because the 45-year-old Robert Patrick Casey Jr. is the political equivalent of an endangered species: He’s a pro-life Democrat. In this respect, he is similar to his late father, who was a two-term governor as well as the author of what may be the most famous undelivered speech of his generation. Casey Sr. was banned from speaking at the 1992 Democratic National Convention because his party’s ideological gatekeepers couldn’t abide the idea that even a single speaker might dissent from a platform that called for abortion on demand.
Because of their shared pro-life views, the son is sometimes said to be the second coming of his old man. They actually look quite a lot alike, from their tall stature (6’2″) to their dark-and-bushy eyebrows. The fact that Casey Jr. has the Democratic primary field virtually to himself — he faces a couple of token opponents — may represent a minor triumph for pro-lifers. Whereas Team Clinton let feminist puritans hang a “No Caseys Allowed” sign outside the party’s small tent in 1992, today’s Democratic bigwigs urged the son into his fourth campaign in five years. Senate majority leader Harry Reid and Democratic campaign chairman Chuck Schumer recruited him for the new race; John Kerry has pitched in with fundraising. They want Casey to run not only because of his gold-plated name, but also because they think his pro-life views may deny Santorum a vital advantage. The idea is to get pro-lifers to cast their votes on the basis of anything but abortion.
BACKWARD OR FORWARD?
In doing so, however, Democrats are asking pro-lifers to accept a devil’s bargain: The election of a pro-life Democrat to the Senate may look like a step forward — a kind of re-ensoulment for a party that has embraced pro-abortion extremism — but the defeat of Santorum would in reality push pro-lifers in the other direction, like a middle linebacker who barrels into a halfback at the line of scrimmage. There are two kinds of pro-lifers in Congress: those who vote a certain way, for reasons of conscience or expediency, but otherwise keep mum, and those who not only vote a certain way but also make sure that meaningful votes are actually scheduled and take place. Santorum belongs in this latter category. He’s not a pro-life backbencher, but a pro-life leader upon whom the entire movement depends for forward progress. He has committed a single apostasy: Last year, he supported Sen. Arlen Specter, a pro-abortion Republican, against a primary challenge from Rep. Pat Toomey, a pro-life conservative. Toomey came very close to toppling the incumbent, and many grassroots activists grumble that by campaigning aggressively for Specter, rather than merely issuing a perfunctory endorsement and then sitting on the sidelines, Santorum undermined his own principles and damaged the pro-life cause. In the 18 months since Toomey’s close-run thing, there has been some forgiving by conservatives but perhaps not enough forgetting. Yet even Toomey, who now heads the Club for Growth, says pro-lifers should look to the future. “This cause is too important to let personal grudges get in the way,” says Toomey. “I’m encouraging all of my supporters to vote for Senator Santorum.”
For pro-lifers, Casey’s election wouldn’t just be the cause of a leadership deficit. It would in fact be something far worse: It would help enable the Senate’s pro-abortion leaders. Perhaps Democratic chairman Howard Dean put it best, in March, when he said that the “progressive community” would approve of Casey because he would oppose the Bush administration’s “extreme nominees” to the federal courts. Therefore, he continued, Casey represents “a qualitative improvement for the community that believes in a woman’s right to choose.” Although Casey has said he would have voted to confirm John Roberts to the Supreme Court, now he says he wants to “reserve judgment” on the nomination of Samuel Alito. He also has defended the Democratic filibusters on judges that have caused conservatives so much consternation. It is hard to see how making Democratic filibusters easier would advance the culture of life. If Casey, who is a lawyer, happens to find himself seated on the Judiciary Committee, he won’t be voting for Specter as chairman, but for Pat Leahy — or, perhaps in future sessions, for Chuck Schumer. No matter what his committee assignments, Casey may eventually find himself in the position of helping pick a successor to the moderately pro-life Harry Reid — and thus elevating a committed pro-choicer such as Dick Durbin of Illinois into a position of power. Again, pro-lifers will wonder how this helps their cause.
Pro-abortion groups aren’t thrilled with Casey, but they also appreciate the prime importance of beating Santorum. Consider the case of StemPac, a new political-action committee that advocates stem-cell research involving the destruction of embryos. Casey does not support this policy. His position on stem cells mirrors President Bush’s. And yet StemPaC is lining up behind him. “A lot of what it comes down to is that Casey is less likely to take a leadership role against us,” says John Hlinko, a spokesman for the group.
Casey doesn’t really like to talk about life issues, whether it’s stem cells or emergency contraception such as the “morning after” pill (whose federal funding he supports, unlike Santorum). He doesn’t raise these topics in his stump speeches or interviews. Yet Casey can’t avoid them, either, and when pressed he often retreats into a boilerplate response about how the pro-life obligation doesn’t end at birth. He uses this observation as a springboard for his political vision of a cradle-to-grave welfare state that is entirely faithful to his party’s traditions. In other words, Casey may break ranks with Democrats on abortion, but he certainly shouldn’t be mistaken for a New Democrat who wants to reorient his party toward the free market. When he ran for governor three years ago, his major policy proposal was to increase Pennsylvania’s minimum wage by $1 per hour. Just about every union in the Keystone State rallied behind him. Meanwhile, former Philadelphia mayor Ed Rendell became the Democrats’ “pro-business” candidate. He went on to wallop Casey in the primary, reversing a lead in the polls that looks suspiciously similar to the one Casey now holds over Santorum.
THE TRANSGENDERED, TOO!
In the race against Santorum, Casey is once again proving to be an old-school Democrat. His speech to the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce on October 14 was a flop, with its calls for increasing taxes on “the top 1 percent,” boosting the budget of the Small Business Administration, and spending more federal cash on job training, science education, and alternative-fuel technology. But its central focus was on Santorum, whom Casey portrays as an ideological crusader who is out of touch with ordinary Pennsylvanians. “For me, Pennsylvania has always been and will always be the first priority,” he said. “I’m not interested in tilting at ideological windmills.” Maybe this line works in front of Democratic activists; it did nothing to excite an audience of centrist business leaders. Santorum spoke from the same podium just a few minutes later and gave a gutsy and persuasive speech on (among other things) why Philadelphians should oppose Canadian drug imports. Casey’s reception was polite but reserved; Santorum’s was warm and encouraging.
Having never held a legislative office, Casey does not own a long history of recorded votes. Yet he has commented from time to time on the major issues of the day. He was opposed to welfare reform in 1996, even though half of the Senate’s Democrats as well as President Clinton backed it. He is against school choice, even though parochial education is popular in Pennsylvania. He also has come out against a marriage amendment to the Constitution, condemning the effort to pass one as an “appeal to bigotry.” The Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights group, has hailed “Casey’s commitment to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender equality.”
The latest polls may look grim for Santorum, though it would be wrong to say his campaign is desperate. Yet anxiety levels appear to be high enough that the senator is open to unconventional ideas. “We’ve challenged Casey to debates this fall,” says John Brabender, a longtime Santorum advisor. The Casey campaign of course has rejected this proposal because it’s feeling confident about the way things are going right now but not so confident about Casey’s ability to square off against Santorum, who can be effective in unscripted settings.
Casey is also taking advantage of the fact that few people know much about him. He has kept a low profile, making only a handful of public appearances and keeping the media at arm’s length. At this point in the campaign, he can still be many things to many people: a forceful pro-life champion in the Democratic caucus, a guy who will cast some pro-life votes but won’t upset the status quo, or merely a useful hack with the best chance of defeating Santorum next year. When he is forced to spell out positions on key issues, his poll numbers are bound to tumble. In August, for instance, Casey’s campaign manager Jay Reiff demanded the Bush administration announce a firm timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq. At the very same time, however, Casey said such a demand would be unwise because “you risk giving the enemy information they shouldn’t have.” John Kerry learned the perils of trying to have it both ways on Iraq, and Casey may yet pay a price himself.
Just about every campaign is susceptible to these kinds of flubs, of course, but over time Casey may find himself especially vulnerable. With the exception of that 2002 gubernatorial primary, Casey has never faced a difficult election — and he’s never gone toe-to-toe against a Republican who stood a real chance of beating him. Will he prove to have a glass jaw? Will he show an ugly flash of temper?
For Santorum, the hope must be that once his challenger really starts swinging, the mighty Casey will strike out.