The Fate of Rick

by John J. Miller on August 26, 2010

in Articles,Politics

  • Sumo

November 6, 2006

A great senator fights for his political life


During a televised debate in Pittsburgh on Oct. 12, Republican senator Rick Santorum and his Democratic challenger Bob Casey Jr. stood so close together that it almost looked like they were holding a joint press conference. Yet they quarreled from the get-go. Early on, Santorum leaned toward Casey, pointed at the camera, and ordered the Democrat to look into it and answer a question. Casey refused, telling Santorum that he was “desperate” and “hyperventilating.” Santorum became visibly agitated with his opponent: “I don’t know how you can say so many words and say nothing.” At times, Casey appeared unnerved, and the senator never let up. “Stop talking, Rick. I’ve got a point to make,” Casey complained at one point. “It would be the first one today,” snapped Santorum.

A longtime aide to Santorum commented that he had never seen the senator so aggressive in a debate — and, given Santorum’s reputation as a scrappy partisan, that’s saying a lot. Yet it may also be a symptom of Santorum’s embroilment in the race of his life: For more than a year, polls have shown Casey holding a sizeable lead over the incumbent. A Zogby survey in early October showed Casey, who is Pennsylvania’s state treasurer, ahead by 12 points. Although some signs suggest Santorum is starting to close this wide gap — a poll in the Allentown Morning Call on Oct. 10 had him down by just 5 points — the senator is clearly frustrated by his struggle to overtake a Democrat he doesn’t respect. Casey “has no knowledge of federal issues,” Santorum told me the morning after the debate.

That’s an overstatement, but it contains an important truth: Casey is an utterly lackluster candidate who owes most of his appeal to his father, the late Bob Casey Sr., who was a popular governor of Pennsylvania in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Yet this race isn’t really about the sparkle or qualifications of the younger Casey, who is now making his fourth run for statewide office in the last six years. Instead, it’s about Rick Santorum, who is one of the best-known and most outspoken conservatives in Washington. Liberals would love nothing more than to beat him: His defeat is essential if Democrats are to have a chance at gaining control of the Senate after November 7, and it would cost conservatives one of their most talented warriors. Santorum has served as a leader on welfare reform, Social Security, and foreign policy. His dedication to the pro-life movement and traditional marriage is unmatched. Democrats and liberal pundits are eager to interpret his looming downfall as a repudiation of conservatism itself — and some Republicans might even believe it. “There would be a chilling effect,” warns a GOP aide. “A lot of Republicans who aren’t as gutsy as Santorum would conclude that social conservatism is for losers.” Because of this, there may not be a more important election for conservatives in the entire country this year.

“I wasn’t born into a family that had a great name,” said Santorum at the debate in Pittsburgh. “I’m a guy who had to grow up having to scratch and claw.” That’s something even his most bitter foes would have to concede. In 1990, at the age of 32, Santorum was a political novice who dreamed of serving in Congress. He took on Doug Walgren, a seven-term Democrat, in a race that nobody thought he could win. Santorum claims to have knocked on 25,000 doors in the months leading up to Election Day. Walgren was caught off guard. He outspent Santorum by a margin of nearly three to one, but when all the ballots were counted Santorum came out on top — by fewer than 5,000 votes. Santorum has said that the first time he heard from the National Republican Congressional Committee, which coordinates GOP election efforts in the House, was on the night of his victory.

Santorum joined the “Gang of Seven,” a group of newly elected, reform-minded congressmen. Bucking decorum in a chamber dominated by Democrats, Santorum and his allies questioned overdrafts in the House bank — an issue of institutional corruption that helped set the stage for the Republican sweeps of 1994. Yet Santorum never experienced serving in a House majority. He had set his sights on the Senate: He squared off against Democratic senator Harris Wofford, who was appointed to complete the term of Republican John Heinz, who had died in a 1991 plane crash.

Once again, Santorum was the underdog. Not only was he taking on another incumbent, but he was also handicapped by Pennsylvania’s reluctance to elect conservatives. The state’s most successful Republicans have been moderates in the mold of Heinz and Arlen Specter. In 1994, the widow of Heinz — Teresa Heinz, who would marry John Kerry the next year — blasted Santorum as “juvenile” and part of a “worrisome breed” that is “overflowing with glib ideology.” Yet Santorum upset Wofford, 49 percent to 47 percent. He won reelection in 2000, besting Democratic congressman Ron Klink by 6 points at a time when presidential candidate George W. Bush was losing Pennsylvania by 5 points. “Santorum is the first authentic conservative to win statewide in recent memory,” says Rep. Phil English, a moderate Republican from Erie who recruited Santorum into the College Republicans some three decades ago.

As he struggles against Casey, Santorum is trying to remind his supporters of this personal history. “Democrats win polls,” he said the day after the debate. “I win elections.”

Yet he has never faced such determined opposition. “I’m public enemy number one of the pro-choice and gay community,” says Santorum. On abortion, he is one of many senators who vote pro-life. The difference is that he is personally responsible for making sure a lot of these votes occur in the first place: He was an architect of the effort to ban partial-birth abortion, a strategy that energized the pro-life movement and allowed it to go on the political offensive. By visiting the brain-damaged Terri Schiavo in Florida last year, Santorum may have hurt himself with voters, but he also demonstrated that he’s willing to take political risks to promote a culture of life. Ten years ago, his own pro-life convictions were put to the test when his wife, Karen, became pregnant with a child who was diagnosed in the womb with a fatal condition. The couple refused to consider abortion. Their son, Gabriel, died two hours after delivery. Today, the senator wears a lapel pin of an angel to honor the boy’s memory. (The Santorums have six other children.)

Casey is also pro-life — his father the governor was famously banned from speaking at the 1992 Democratic convention because he dissented from his party’s abortion-on-demand platform. Yet Casey is not down-the-line pro-life: He supports over-the-counter sales of the morning-after pill, while Santorum insists that it’s an abortifacient. On gay rights, the contrast between the two candidates is starker. “Casey has put one arm around the gay-rights movement,” says a conservative Democrat from Pennsylvania. He supports civil unions and is a favorite candidate of the Human Rights Campaign, a group that promotes gay marriage. Santorum, meanwhile, is among the strongest congressional opponents of gay marriage. For this reason, he has become a hate figure on the left. Earlier this year, at a conference of gay activists, Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean singled out Santorum as “one of the most mean-spirited and corrupt Republicans in Washington.”

This is, of course, absurd. Santorum is deeply serious about his beliefs. Last year, ISI Books, the imprint of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, published his book, It Takes a Family, a rejoinder to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s It Takes a Village. Santorum’s volume is surprisingly substantive, compared with the pabulum that usually flows from the pens of politicians. In the preface, the senator describes the book as “an attempt to sketch the past forty years of American history in light of our founders’ vision for the pursuit of the common good in a civil society.” Its 449 pages discuss everything from taxes to Darwinism, with references to Russell Kirk, The Lord of the Rings, and U2 lyrics. With 30,000 copies sold, it’s the second-best-selling title in the catalog of ISI Books — only Everyday Graces, a book by his wife, has sold more.

After It Takes a Family came out, Santorum’s enemies scoured it for provocative quotations that have the potential to backfire on their author. The best they could come up with was this: “In far too many families with young children, both parents are working, when, if they really took an honest look at the budget, they might confess that both of them really don’t need to, or at least may not need to work as much as they do.” Liberal interpretation: Santorum hates moms with jobs! The Casey campaign has turned this line into an attack ad featuring the voice of a working mother who suggests that the senator “doesn’t understand how hard it is in order [sic] to make ends meet.”

There was little doubt that Democrats would try to exploit the book: Santorum is normally a very good interview subject because he isn’t afraid to speak his mind. When he was working on It Takes a Family, several advisers wondered whether the senator was just creating a new vulnerability for himself. Wouldn’t it be better to put out a book of maudlin anecdotes and poll-tested proposals? But Santorum didn’t budge. “One of my fellow congressmen from Pennsylvania asked me, ‘Why are you doing this now? Why not wait until after the election?'” he told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Because people will read it now and they won’t read it after the election. I really do want people to read this. I believe it.”

Santorum is clearly a conviction politician who would rather persuade others to move in his direction than change his own views to satisfy popular sentiments. This is a trait that many voters appear to admire: In a September poll, 54 percent said that they respect Santorum for sticking to his principles. The senator has tried to turn this perception into an asset, acknowledging that he can be abrasive: “Sometimes what I say sounds like fingernails on the chalkboard to people,” he said at a fire station in Bucks County in mid-October. But he insists that this is a merely a side effect of taking a stand on difficult subjects. “I’m a passionate guy. I’m tough. I’m a fighter,” he said in the Pittsburgh debate. “But you know what? I’m an Italian kid from a steel town. What do you expect from me?”

These blue-collar roots occasionally have influenced Santorum’s voting record. He opposed NAFTA as a member of the House and, as a senator, backed the Bush administration’s steel-import protectionism. He doesn’t shy away from battles he believes in. Although he doesn’t serve on the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, Santorum has tried to shape the debate about American challenges in the post-9/11 world. “Some say we are fighting a war on terror. That is like saying World War II was a war on blitzkrieg,” said Santorum in a speech at the National Press Club on July 20. “Today, we are fighting against Islamic fascists.” His recent remarks on Iran have been especially harsh. This is the type of talk that gives the State Department jitters, even if it happens to be true.

Two years ago, Santorum’s apparent unwillingness to stay away from controversy earned him enormous criticism from conservatives. GOP congressman Pat Toomey launched a primary challenge against Republican senator Arlen Specter, who had clashed with the Bush administration on tax cuts and other issues. Santorum did more than issue a perfunctory endorsement of his fellow incumbent — he campaigned hard on Specter’s behalf, and convinced many Republicans that, although Specter was far from ideal, at least he would hold the seat in November. Specter eked out a win in the primary and cruised to an easy reelection. Time hasn’t healed all grudges. “Santorum’s base is depressed because a lot of conservatives still resent his forceful support of Specter,” says Jim Broussard of the Hershey-based Citizens Against Higher Taxes. “I hear from people who say they want an apology. Maybe they should get over it, but they haven’t.” Toomey, for his part, has urged his supporters to fight for Santorum this year.

If Santorum loses on Nov. 7, it won’t be because he was too liberal for supporting Specter, but because he was to the right of most voters in a state that has cast its electoral votes for Democratic presidential candidates since 1992. Polls suggest that Santorum performs about as well among conservative Republicans as Casey does among liberal Democrats. The senator’s real problem is that he doesn’t do as well among moderate Republicans as Casey does among moderate Democrats. It would be a sad irony if conservatives were to join hands with the Specter wing of the GOP, fail to turn out on Election Day, and thereby contribute to the defeat of the only true conservative of the last generation or two who has managed to win a statewide contest in Pennsylvania.

Because Casey is pro-life and against gun control, Santorum has had trouble gaining traction against him on what have been a couple of the GOP’s most effective issues. This problem is confounded by Casey’s reclusive election strategy, which has involved few public appearances and even fewer interviews with the press. “He did so poorly in our Meet the Press debate [on Sept. 3] that they put him in the witness protection program,” says Santorum. In recent weeks, Santorum has tried to campaign on illegal immigration: Casey has endorsed the McCain-Kennedy bill, which Santorum opposes as too lax.

On Oct. 13, Santorum went to Hazleton, a town near Wilkes-Barre where Mayor Lou Barletta has pushed for ordinances against employers who hire illegal aliens. The senator spoke to a few dozen supporters at Jimmy’s Quick Lunch. He didn’t look like a desperate candidate, as Casey had called him the day before. Instead, he looked like a pol with sharp retail skills as he prepared a batch of chili dogs, shook hands, and signed posters. He may not knock on tens of thousands of doors anymore, but he’s accustomed to coming from behind and confounding the expectations of pundits who underestimate him. People on his campaign believe that if he can get within 3 or 4 points of Casey on Election Day, he will prevail once more. “This race is going to be a nail-biter,” said Santorum from behind the counter at Jimmy’s. “It’s going to come down to one thing: Who wants it most?”

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