In the fall of Rick Santorum’s second year as a senator, he asked an impertinent question of his colleague Russ Feingold (D., Wis.). Most Democrats in 1996, including Feingold, were defending the legality of a procedure — dubbed “partial-birth abortion” by pro-lifers — in which an abortionist partially delivered a fetus, punctured its skull, vacuumed out its brain, and then removed the remains. What, asked Santorum, if the abortionist accidentally delivered the fetus whole? Could he then “kill the baby”?
Feingold answered: “I am not the person to be answering that question. That is a question that should be answered by a doctor, and by the woman who receives the advice from the doctor. And neither I, nor is the senator from Pennsylvania, truly competent to answer those questions. That is why we should not be making those decisions here on the floor of the Senate.”
Three years later, in another debate on the issue, Santorum tried to get Senator Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.) to say how much of the baby had to be inside the mother for it to be fair game. Her answers ranged from “I agree with the Roe v. Wade decision” to “when you bring your baby home” to “I am not answering these questions.”
Other Republicans were content to rest their case on the visceral revulsion most people feel toward descriptions of partial-birth abortion. Santorum grasped the underlying logic of the legislation. Neither the Supreme Court nor the political movement for legal abortion had been able to mark a defensible outer limit to the right they defended; they could not explain just why infanticide should be illegal. Santorum was able to lay a trap for liberals because he had thought the issue through. He was able to think it through because he is intelligent, and willing to think it through because he cares about the right to life of the unborn: a combination of traits that is not ubiquitous among Republican politicians. These traits, doubtless aided by a certain sense of self, give him a moral and intellectual confidence in making his case.
So it is not surprising that social conservatives, this pro-lifer included, counted the defeat of his reelection bid among the hardest of the political losses of 2006. It is not surprising, either, that many social conservatives are supporting Santorum’s presidential campaign because he is — as the president of the Susan B. Anthony List, a pro-life group that has endorsed him, puts it — the “strongest pro-life candidate” in the race. Nor, finally, is it surprising that those Republicans who disagree with social conservatives on their top issues, or consider those issues unimportant, have generally been hostile to Santorum’s candidacy.
But the likely effects of Santorum’s current campaign are being misjudged. It is social conservatives, above all, who have the most to fear from his campaign, because it has done serious, if inadvertent, damage to their, and his, causes. It could yet do more.
In October, a sympathetic blogger asked Santorum “what we could do to advance the pro-life agenda beyond what we’ve already done.” The former senator’s answer would cause him, and other conservatives, no end of trouble over the next few months, and illustrates several of the drawbacks to his approach to politics. In the middle of a rambling response, Santorum made this comment: “One of the things I will talk about, that no president has talked about before, is I think the dangers of contraception in this country. . . . It’s not okay. It’s a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”
Santorum would later criticize the media for dwelling on his views on contraception (“gotcha politics,” he called it). But the record shows that it was Santorum himself who raised the issue, essentially unprompted. His later attempts to backtrack suggest his belated recognition of the obvious: Even in primaries filled with social conservatives, the remark was politically harmful to him. The vast majority of Americans consider contraception morally unproblematic. Most Americans who oppose abortion have no objection to contraception, which makes Santorum’s train of thought hard to follow: How could Santorum “advance the pro-life agenda” by raising an issue that splits pro-lifers, and puts him on the smaller side?
And why would Santorum think that a presidential lecture would change many Americans’ minds or behavior with respect to contraception? Surely this expectation takes confidence in one’s persuasive abilities too far, and overestimates the power of political figures to lead cultural change. Perhaps Catholic priests should do more to make the case against contraception; as someone who accepts that case, I think so. The notion that it is a president’s job to instruct the people on their moral errors, on the other hand, is both wrong and unattractive.
That stray comment has made it harder for conservatives to resist the Obama administration’s outrageous attack on religious liberty. The administration seeks to force almost all employers, including most religious employers, to offer their employees insurance that covers contraception, abortion drugs, and sterilization. Its allies accuse those who resist this mandate of waging a “war on contraception.” The fact that a leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination does seek to use high office to discourage contraceptive use, albeit non-coercively, made this largely bogus story seem more plausible.
And as the campaign has progressed, it has become clear that Santorum’s remarks on contraception would not be the only example of his not picking his battles wisely, or at all. In a 2011 speech, he said that he “almost threw up” upon reading John F. Kennedy’s famous 1960 speech to the ministers of Houston. Asked about it in late February of 2012 — in the middle of primary season — Santorum defended his words: “I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute. . . . To say that people of faith have no role in the public square? You bet that makes you throw up.”