Rick Santorum is rebranding himself. With the bruising 2012 primary behind him and another presidential bid in his sights, the former Pennsylvania senator and famous culture warrior is out with a new book, Blue Collar Conservatives, that puts his longstanding interest in working-class issues at the fore.
Defeating same-sex marriage has become reclaiming marriage culture. His new book’s index doesn’t have one reference to abortion, and it’s barely mentioned in the text at all. In Santorum’s much-longer 2005 work, It Takes a Family, several chapters are devoted to abortion. Medicaid goes from one mention in his 2005 book’s index to five in this book’s.
It’s working-class concerns, not “social issues,” that Santorum says turned his months-long slog through Iowa in 2011 and 2012 into an incredible upset victory in the state’s caucuses.
In a big 2012 field, it was Santorum who carried the mantle of the conservative alternative to Romney to the very end, winning eleven states and 4 million votes until finally suspending his campaign on April 10, 2012.
Two days later, he says, he got the idea for the book. Ex-candidate Santorum, who never hired a pollster, appreciated it when Romney consultant Neil Newhouse offered to share with him some numbers from the campaign. After an early lead in the exit polls for Romney in the Alabama and Mississippi primaries had melted into a Santorum victory, Newhouse started asking what time of day voters were planning to go to the polls. In a poll for the Pennsylvania primary that Santorum never contested, voters who planned to vote before 5 o’clock favored Romney by four or five points. Voters who didn’t plan to get to the polls until after 5 were going Santorum by 21 points.
“Although the media never reported it,” Santorum writes, “I knew I had connected with working Americans during the  campaign, and not because I had talked about ‘social issues.’”
In 2012, Santorum got a lot of support from Bible Belt Evangelicals, and he’s quite frequently mistaken for one. He shares many of their values, for sure, but he’s a Rust Belt Roman Catholic, which leads to a deep philosophical appreciation for the role of family in politics and a powerful personal connection to American workers. That explains the gist of his message: The American worker and the American family are in deep crisis, and only when both are healthy is the country going to succeed.
He frequently mentions his 2012 Iowa victory speech, in which he talked about the funeral of his grandfather, an Italian-immigrant coal miner whose hands, in old age, bore the marks of a lifetime of proud, hard work. With the decline in the coal industry and the rapid shuttering of American steel mills, Santorum’s home, western Pennsylvania, has seen maybe America’s most dramatic deindustrialization, and all the social problems that crop up in its wake. No presidential candidate is going to bring back Bethlehem Steel, but one who understands the pain of its absence, Santorum thinks, is essential.
Why should Americans be paying attention to a failed presidential candidate who hasn’t held office since 2007? For one, he seems to be the Republican candidate most openly suggesting that he’s going to run in 2016. It’s not just the gratuitous Iowa mentions in his book. When asked about 2016, Santorum says, “Right now I’m doing everything I would be doing if I were going to run.”
But he’s also tapping into a rising trend in the conservative movement: the realization that the solutions of the Reagan years don’t match up with today’s problems, and that conservatives need reform-minded ideas that focus on working Americans.
This isn’t a new idea for Santorum: In his 2005 book, he derides his deficit-obsessed GOP colleagues in the Senate as essentially “cheap liberals,” and he proudly worked on a number of anti-poverty bills while a legislator. He even turned his Senate office into a welfare-to-work program: He describes in his book how, when setting up his constituent office in depressed Harrisburg, Pa., he hired five employees who were on welfare. One of them, a single mother, risked losing her subsidized child care by taking the job, and could swing it only by finding family members who were able to help take care of her kids.
That track record, though, didn’t prevent him from being typecast as a social-conservative culture warrior. Is insisting that the GOP talk more about marriage and family any way to break the mold of moralizer-in-chief?
Encouraging marriage, he says, “isn’t a moral argument” per se, it’s a public-policy priority. In his Iowa stump speeches, he liked to cite a Brookings study on how people who graduate from high school, get married, and have kids, in that order, almost never end up in poverty.
“The foundation of a stable civilization is the family. The family breaks down — the economy suffers, the state suffers, the community suffers,” he says. Marriage is a public good, he argues, that ought to be promoted just like any other — staying in school, or quitting smoking. “There isn’t any disagreement about the public benefits of [marriage,]” he says. (He complains, based on this line of questioning, that even National Review reporters now don’t seem to understand how important marriage is.)
Santorum wants to do a lot more than talk up marriage, though. He has a number of policy proposals to create an economy that can support working families — some unique to him, and some that other reform-minded conservatives have been pushing.