Politics & Policy

Romney-Santorum 2008

The former senator makes his choice.

If the general public associates a face with the word “conservative,” it could very well be that of former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum. He’s been a vocal opponent of his former colleague John McCain during this primary season, but he had hesitated to go one step further. That changed Friday, when he endorsed Mitt Romney during an appearance on Laura Ingraham’s radio show. In a subsequent interview with National Review Online, he explained his decision.

“Campaigns can change who you are, particularly politically. Just thinking and living and breathing why I want to be president and what I stand for and why I stand for it . . . I always say about 20 years of political life experiences get compacted into a year. So people can change,” Santorum said. “That’s what I was waiting to see — whether any of these candidates could do that and take what I refer to as lumps of coal and under this pressure cooker that is a presidential campaign, you know, produce a diamond. I really believe Romney has gone through that process.”

Santorum conceded that part of his trepidation stems from the fact that many of Romney’s conservative positions were arrived at relatively recently. He says he’s now convinced of Romney’s conservative convictions.

“I think Romney, when he decided to run, he’s a smart business guy, and he sort of got his team together and said, ‘What do I need to do to be the conservative candidate?’ and give me the checklist and see if I can check them off,” Santorum said. “And I think over the course of this campaign, you know, I saw the migration from the checklist to his head and from his head into his heart and I really believe that’s where he is today.”

However, his decision to support Romney is also the result of the fact that he’s more ill at ease than ever with the idea of a President McCain. Santorum says that if an unpredictable, moderate McCain is president it could be worse than if a Democrat were elected. “It’s incredibly important [to have an ally in the White House]. We’re going to have two, maybe three Supreme Court nominees. That’s huge for the future of the Court and many issues that I care about. Having the veto there can be helpful,” he said. “On the other hand, I served with George H. W. Bush, a guy who lost his way as president and decided that when you had to make a deal, you went over and made a deal with the Democrats, you didn’t make a deal with Republicans and Democrats and that’s my great fear. . . . That’s worse in many respects on those issues than having a Democrat because you then undermine Republican opposition to the things that the Democrats want to do. And it makes it much more likely for those things to happen.”

Santorum is not alone in his feelings about McCain. Former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert recently attacked McCain along similar lines, saying that among the congressional GOP McCain was known as “the undependable vote” and was always “allied with Democrats.”

But it should also be noted that a number of McCain’s Senate colleagues enthusiastically support McCain’s candidacy, including influential conservative senators such as Jon Kyl, Tom Coburn, and Sam Brownback. Brownback in particular has directly disputed Santorum’s negative characterizations of McCain. “The suggestion that John McCain was not a consistent conservative in the Senate is flat wrong. I have seen John operate out of the public view and there is one thing I know for sure: John McCain is a Reagan conservative we can trust,” Brownback said.

However, despite his initial problems with McCain, a recent incident played a large part in instigating Santorum’s recent endorsement. “Something happened a couple of nights ago to me right after the Florida primary. I ran into someone who was with the McCain campaign and I know had spent some time down in Florida, that walked up to me at an event and before I could even say hello said, ‘We beat you.’ And I thought that to be a rather odd statement because I wasn’t on the ballot. So who is ‘you’? Who did they beat? They surely didn’t beat me, Rick Santorum.”

During the Ingraham interview, Santorum said that when the person who reveled in Romney’s defeat said “we beat you,” the word “you” meant “conservatives.” Asked if the person taunting him simply said “we beat you” as a McCain supporter speaking to a McCain critic, rather than a general indictment, Santorum said he still believes the comment was intended as an attack on the conservative base.

“This is how I took it: They [the McCain campaign] really are fighting against the base of the Republican party, the conservatives in the Republican Party, that’s what they see this as. Because certainly that’s what I represented in many respects,” Santorum said. “So I sort of said, ‘Wow, this really is a battle for who we are going to be as a party.’”

Santorum also insists that his opposition to McCain cuts deeper than the issue of personal animus or an objection to the Arizona senator’s temper. “It’s unpredictability — the lack of a woven or synthesized worldview. It is the compulsion to do what everyone in Washington, if you’re Republican, knows will get you good press. And you know what that is: beat up on a Republican, take on a Republican,” he said. “This is a man who is not in principle a conservative.”

Aside from his criticism of McCain, Santorum also says that he’s now convinced by Romney’s ideas and conviction regarding national security and terrorism. As a senator and as the director of the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s Program to Protect America’s Freedom, Santorum has been consistently outspoken about the threat of Islamofascism. Santorum now says that Romney’s relative lack of experience with foreign policy is no longer a concern for him. “I had the opportunity to have breakfast with him pretty much one on one and we spent an hour and a half, hour and 15 minutes, talking about this issue and spent most of it talking about Iran. I came away very comfortable,” he said. “He is someone who understood the issues and where he didn’t understand, was willing to listen and quickly able to assimilate the points I was making into things he already understood and saw the connection, saw how it fit.”

He’s also come to be reassured about Romney’s position on life issues. “Of all the things that have caused me to hesitate, it’s been those issues,” he said. But Santorum now thinks that Romney gets how his recent adoption of a pro-life position is part of a broader framework. “He understands how that fits in with the broader conservative point of view. Understanding that conservatism is not an ideology, it’s just a reflection of Americanism. It’s who we are — to conserve means to keep what we have been and what we know works. I think he understands that,” Santorum said.

As pundits wonder if Romney will make it past Tuesday, Santorum believes it’s important for conservatives to embrace Romney: “[Romney] understands what’s at stake here for this party and as a result, I believe, for this country. He said to me he’s going to fight to the end, spend whatever money — whether it’s donated money or his own money–he believes this is a cause worth fighting.”

— Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.

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