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.
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.
The problem with our economy, Santorum argues, is not only the burdens government places on the petits rentiers or the share of the economy that it consumes, but the lack of honest, well-paying jobs in the private sector. That contributes to family breakdown, and family breakdown means fewer and fewer Americans being inculcated with the blue-collar virtues.
Some of this leads him to policy ideas that aren’t going to sit well with free marketeers — Blue Collar Conservatives (shockingly) is not a Wall Street Journal–approved manifesto. He points out that the benefits of Reagan’s cutting the top rate from 70 percent to 40 simply can’t be replicated; meanwhile, bringing down the top marginal tax rate remains a key GOP priority. Like Utah senator Mike Lee, he instead calls for ending marriage penalties and expanding the child tax credit.
He raises some economic issues that are often ignored in red-meat talk on the right but have become a topic of interest for conservative policy thinkers. For instance, he highlights the plight of the historic number of long-term unemployed in this recession, pointing out how their skills and social networks erode.
He doesn’t, as many conservatives do, assert that American social mobility has decreased; he notes a recent study by a number of respected economists indicating that it’s been about the same in the U.S. over the past half century. But there’s still a problem: We have persistently lower economic mobility than Europe. More interestingly, he notes, social mobility varies dramatically across the United States, and the study found that it’s highest where families are strongest — Salt Lake City is the zenith.
Congressional Republicans are against raising the minimum wage, but he’s for raising it: not the $10.10 proposal President Obama wants (an ideological “living wage” proposal), but an increase to keep up with inflation. “Republicans are wrong” to oppose any increase, since that implies “there shouldn’t be a minimum wage at all,” he says. “Good luck making that argument.”
In a meeting with NR, he points out that 70 percent of Americans don’t have a college degree and declares, “That won’t change.” It may, but he has a point about providing opportunity and training for blue-collar workers, one that other conservatives, such as governors Sam Brownback and Rick Perry, are starting to emphasize as well.
Santorum also questions the bipartisan consensus in favor of free trade: What’s the good in cheaper products, he asks, if we don’t have steady jobs in America?
This might be his most heterodox idea, but it’s a natural instinct from someone whose connection with western Pennsylvania and American industrial culture is palpable. Santorum’s concerns play into his argument for zeroing out the corporate tax rate for manufacturers. This idea is a politically advantageous departure from free-market orthodoxy that Santorum defends by arguing that, before taxes and labor costs, manufacturers face much higher costs (regulatory compliance, environmental reviews, etc.) in the U.S. than they do in competing countries.
So, of course, do construction firms and banks, so his case isn’t ironclad. But his heart is in the right place on manufacturing: The question of how to ensure that the U.S. economy continues to provide enough jobs for American workers is a real one.
A blithe attitude about economic disruption and the decline of traditional industries goes along with what Santorum sees as a philosophical overemphasis on individualism. Conservatives, he argues, have neglected an important strand of political thought in which the family is the fundamental unit of the polis.
“The basic unit of the society is the family,” he writes, not “the individual.” Liberty in America shouldn’t mean just “freedom from” coercion, he argues, but “freedom for” — for Americans to do the right thing, to choose the virtuous and Godly course. That, he explains, is the properly understood meaning of the right to “pursuit of happiness.” (He takes this up in American Patriots, his recent book of exempla from the Revolutionary period divided into defenders of life, defenders of liberty, and defenders of “the pursuit of happiness,” i.e., virtue.)
Santorum explicitly blames libertarians for the rise of individualism, but it’s hard not to feel as if he’s taking issue with most of his party. He doesn’t have a natural allegiance to either stereotypical wing of the party, the Chamber of Commerce types or the Tea Party deficit hawks, and says he often doesn’t feel as if he sees candidates who embody his vision. Santorum has made some endorsements in the 2014 elections, but hasn’t taken a side in any big-time Tea Party vs. conservative fight.
Eschewing the Tea Party, the establishment, and libertarians, violating free-market orthodoxy, refusing to say “middle class,” talking about poverty reduction and prison reform, putting marriage and family at the core of our understanding of America — if it sounds like only Santorum is courageous, clever, and foolish enough to make this a presidential campaign, maybe that’s because he is.
— Patrick Brennan is an associate editor at National Review.