Mike Pence, Mitch Daniels, Paul Ryan, Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush — conservatives all year long have been wishing, yearning, even begging people who aren’t in the presidential race to enter the fray and save them from what seems like a frighteningly uninspiring field of candidates. Yet could it be that the sharpest, most accomplished, most campaign-savvy, and most full-spectrum conservative in a quarter-century of presidential contests has been in the contest all along, working harder than anybody, making at least as much intellectual sense as anybody, never blowing a debate, and never failing to stand on principle?
The man of the hour could be that perennial underdog, Rick Santorum.
With Michele Bachmann and her rapidly changing staff having faded almost to oblivion, with Rick Perry having bombed in four straight debates, with Newt Gingrich still weighed down by more baggage than LaGuardia Airport after a three-day snow-storm, and with Herman Cain possibly imploding before our eyes after the most graphic allegations yet, could Santorum be the last conservative left standing?
Well, no. Santorum never stands; he keeps on running. As even the New York Times recently has noted, the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania is out-working, out-hustling, and out-slogging everybody else in the field in Iowa, building a campaign organization in an old-fashioned, one-person-at-a-time manner more thorough than any candidate since Jimmy Carter first put Iowa on the presidential map in 1976. His 99-county campaign is probably unprecedented, and his energy is infectious. This week he scored a huge coup with the endorsement of Chuck Laudner, a former Iowa Republican party executive director who is perhaps the most effective conservative operative in the Hawkeye State. Amidst all that, Santorum also has built surprisingly extensive grassroots networks in New Hampshire and South Carolina, with well-liked former congressman Gresham Barrett helping lead his effort in the latter.
Rick Santorum is a man accustomed to beating long political odds. As late as election night in his first race for Congress in 1990, top staffers at the National Republican Congressional Committee weren’t even familiar with him — even as returns came in showing that, without a single bit of national party help, he had won an upset victory in western Pennsylvania. Redistricted into a fight with a Democratic incumbent in 1992, he won again. Running for the Senate in 1994, again he was supposed to have no chance, this time against media favorite Harris Wofford, who was thought unbeatable after having erased a 30-point deficit to beat Republican former Gov. Dick Thornburgh in 1991. Running for reelection in 2000, Santorum again was an underdog — but, even as George W. Bush lost Pennsylvania by four points, Santorum won it by seven.
All of that political success, however, seems to get forgotten in comparison with his 18-point reelection loss in 2006. Yet it’s almost impossible to see how any other candidate could have done better. Pennsylvania featured a million more registered Democrats than Republicans; 2006 was the worst Republican year nationwide (excluding Watergate’s 1974) since the Great Depression; and Santorum’s opponent, Bob Casey Jr., was the namesake son of probably the most popular Keystone State governor in more than half a century. As it was, Santorum outpolled that year’s Republican candidate for governor, and outperformed the Republican candidates in most congressional districts as well. Finally, Santorum ran his race as a profile in courage, insisting that the United States should not cut and run from an increasingly unpopular mission in Iraq, in effect presaging the “surge” strategy that ended up working so well.
Other conservative senators have told me personally they advised Santorum to hedge his bets on issues that year — but that Santorum said that in a brutally tough election year, if he couldn’t win by standing on principle, he wasn’t going to win anyway. Can anybody doubt that he was correct? That’s the sort of attitude that can attract and inspire voters in the more-Republican year that 2012 promises to be, when the energy of Tea Partiers and social conservatives alike will be needed to be at a high level to counteract Barack Obama’s planned $1 billion campaign.
As almost any conservative will readily acknowledge, Santorum’s record of actually legislating on principle is stellar. Almost every conservative interest group rated him highly, with the American Conservative Union’s lifetime 88.1 rating for Santorum being typical. Yet those who buy into the media image of him as a saber-rattler without real effect haven’t looked at the real record. One doesn’t get chosen as Senate Republican Conference Chairman, the party’s third-ranking Senate position, if you can’t get things done and work well with others. He was a lead Senate author and floor manager of the 1996 welfare reform act, and the author of other successful legislation ranging from various anti-abortion bills to the Iran Freedom and Support Act. Those with longer memories will remember his leadership of the Gang of Seven in the early 1990s that did so much to publicize various ethics breaches in the House, helping set the stage for the historic 1994 Republican takeover of Congress.
Finally, conservatives heavily engaged in the wars over judicial nominations know that even though Santorum wasn’t on the Judiciary Committee, he ranked was one of the Senate’s two or three most stalwart, and effective, supporters of conservative selections, even when much of the rest of the Republican caucus didn’t want to be bothered.
In this campaign, meanwhile, nobody has been more substantive. His major policy speeches on defense and the role of faith in public life were tours de force, and on Friday he added a bold speech on a plethora of social issues. He also enthusiastically embraced House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan’s spending reforms even when others like Newt Gingrich were trying to distance themselves from it.
None of which is to say that Santorum is a perfect candidate. As strong as he has been on substance in debates, for instance, he hasn’t gained in the polls — perhaps because while his attack-dog habits have succeeded in hurting other candidates, they haven’t redounded to his own advantage. Any adviser would tell him henceforth to stop interrupting other candidates, to smile more, and to spend more time offering a positive agenda that stresses the good it will do for American citizens rather than the good it shows about his own character. Santorum needs to give a better sense it is the nation’s virtues, not his own, that he is extolling.
Those, however, are correctable style points. They don’t require an essential change in his character, his specific issue positions, or his overall message. Nor would Rick Santorum be likely to change those essentials. Perhaps the most refreshing thing about Santorum, from the moment he entered the nationals scene in 1990, is that there’s no fakery about him. His genuineness is palpable. His sincerity is unquestionable. His conservative bona fides are superb.
And his political chops are far, far stronger than most observers have credited. Conservatives would not only be premature in counting him out, but would also be foolish. Rick Santorum is a savvy, principled conservative, and he has a history of being a winner.
— Quin Hillyer is a senior fellow for the Center for Individual Freedom.