In 1994, when Rick Santorum was a second-term Pennsylvania congressman seeking a U.S. Senate seat, a columnist asked him how he was going to win. “Guns,” he replied serenely. Pennsylvania’s legions of deer hunters do not use assault weapons, which President Bill Clinton was trying to ban, but the hunters suspected that this, like Clinton’s wife’s health care plan, reflected a pattern of assaults on liberty.
Santorum, then 36, won by 87,210 votes — 87,210 hunters? — out of 3,384,172 cast, becoming the first conservative elected senator from Pennsylvania since 1952. “Never,” he says today, “underestimate the power of the social issues.”
He probably will test that power — and the theory, which he rejects, that economic anxieties have marginalized those issues — by seeking the Republicans’ 2012 presidential nomination.
Santorum had one of the Senate’s most conservative voting records and was floor manager of the most important legislation of the 1990s, the 1996 welfare reform, which Clinton vetoed twice before signing. In 2000, Santorum won a second term with 52 percent, and was elected third-ranking Republican leader in the Senate. In 2006, a miserable year for Republicans, he lost 59-41.
How can he, having lost his last election, run for president? Isn’t he a spent political force? Well, was Richard Nixon defunct after losing the California gubernatorial race in 1962?
Santorum does not ignore economic issues, but as a relentless ethicist, he recasts those as moral issues: “What is European socialism but modern-day monarchy that ‘takes care’ of the people?” He is, of course, correct that America’s debt crisis is, at bottom, symptomatic of a failure of self-control, a fundamental moral failing.