Miley Cyrus tweeted: “‘IF WE ALLOW GAY MARRIAGE NEXT THING U KNOW PEOPLE WILL BE MARRYING GOLD FISH.’ — Rick Santorum UO contributed $13,000 to this mans campaign.” Miley Cyrus was protesting the news that the president of Urban Outfitters has contributed to former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum. She was also taking some liberties with arguments Santorum has made about protecting traditional marriage.
(Apparently the longtime Disney star is a proponent of freedom of choice in retail and marriage but not in campaign giving.)
Such is pretty much the media life of Rick Santorum these days. Just Google him. When Keira Knightley took the advice of Daily Show star Jon Stewart that you do just that to identify the Republicans who participated in the first primary debate last month, the British actress reported: “I just Googled Santorum. I feel like my innocence has been taken away.” His political opponents have left a (not family-friendly) lasting impression of just what they think about him.
But it’s nothing new. And neither the insults and injustices of the political arena nor the 17-point loss he took in his last race (for reelection to the Senate in 2006) are keeping him from running for the Republican nomination for president in 2012.
The question many of those who follow the news are asking is: “Why would he bother?”
Well, he would bother because he believes, as do so many who have shown up at Tea Party rallies in the last two years, that America is in existential jeopardy if we don’t make some swift and hard choices, rooted in who we are and who we want to be. He would bother because he has experience working in Washington, working with people of a variety of views, moving legislation forward that provides humane solutions to problems sometimes created by well-intentioned government programs. He would bother because he loves people and policy, and sees the connections between the two. He would bother because he feels called to do it, not from a messianic complex, but in service.
On marriage, by the way, he has said: “If we do not, as a party and as a people, stand behind the institution of marriage and understand its essential role as the glue that holds the family together — the family, the building block of society, the first economy, the first school, the first place where children’s character is formed — we are going to destine our children and destine the future of this country for a lower standard of living and a less free and prosperous country.” Young Cyrus, by her father’s admission, hasn’t had the best model of that, so her outburst can be compassionately excused.
Santorum, who was a leader in truly changing the debate in the 1990s about abortion, by working toward a ban on partial-birth abortion, does not discuss issues like the dignity of human life and marriage to be divisive or intolerant, but because he believes they’re integral to our Founding, to our divinely ordained rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
They’re essential, too, to why he bothers with politics at all — the dignity of human life, for him, is not a talking point, or confined to one issue.
“We are, in fact, our brother’s keeper,” he pointed out on the radio on the last weekday before he was to make his campaign official. “We need a policy in America that helps Americans engage.” For him, making government smaller is in part about making it work better, making us work as we do best. “Today there is an expectation . . . that it is not our responsibility to care for one another in need, because there is all this taxing and spending that takes care of people.” With that expectation, people get lost in a bureaucracy that encourages dependency. That expectation is financially and morally unsustainable.
Now, I’m an unabashed fan of Santorum, and he’s a friend of mine. So don’t take my word for it. Consider what David Brooks, not known as a hard-line conservative, wrote on the eve of Santorum’s 2006 election loss: “If serious antipoverty work is going to be done, it’s going to emerge from a coalition of liberals and religious conservatives. Without Santorum, that’s less likely to happen.” U2 frontman Bono, who is well known for his work trying to help the long-suffering people of Africa, told Brooks: “I would suggest that Rick Santorum has a kind of Tourette’s disease; he will always say the most unpopular thing. But on our issues, he has been a defender of the most vulnerable.” Not through reckless, unaccountable, redundant, and otherwise misappropriated spending, but through good stewardship.
On Friday mornings for about the last two years, Santorum has regularly guest-hosted Bill Bennett’s nationally syndicated morning radio show. On one of the final shows before his presidential launch, a caller from Atlanta offered that he had not been particularly fond of Santorum before the radio stint, thinking he was “just another politician talking about conservatism.” But “the more I’ve gotten to know your story and listened to you on the issues, the more impressed I’ve become. I think what we’re lacking — among many other things — at the top, with the president is a lack of intellectual depth. Listening to you it has become obvious that you not only understand the issues, but you live the issues.”
Given a fair shot, and a lot of hard work — which anyone who knows him knows he’s committed to — it might not be just one Atlanta caller who reevaluates the father of eight.
But can he win? I think this is the Republicans’ election to lose. Santorum has won elections in a heavily Democratic state, where he outpolled Republicans on the presidential ticket. “When you look at his record and his biography, from the way he talks about social, economic, and national-security issues, he stands for what Reagan Democrats liked in Reagan,” says Seth Leibsohn, a senior adviser to Santorum’s budding presidential campaign.
Since Senator Santorum is bothering to run, for the sake of the Republic, he’s worth taking a look at. (Senior conservative commentator George Will, by the way, has also suggested as much.) For his record. For his plans. For who he is and why he does it. For America.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online. This column is available exclusively through United Media.