There was something remarkably attractive at the Republican debate at the Reagan Library on September 7.
No, it wasn’t Jon Huntsman’s tan, Mitt Romney’s hair, Michele Bachmann’s shoes, or Rick Perry’s swagger.
Although I suppose the swagger isn’t entirely unrelated. But what was special was something far less superficial, the kind of thing you know when you see, but that we might all be a bit too jaded about politics to acknowledge: It was authenticity.
Yes, even politicians can have it.
You saw it when Mitt Romney, given the opportunity to beat up on Perry for a terrible decision as governor of Texas — to mandate, by executive order, that girls going into the sixth grade in his state be inoculated against the human papilloma virus, a sexually transmitted disease, a trampling on parental rights, for starters — decided not to. Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, perhaps seeing his own vulnerabilities — records can be a biting reality — didn’t take the bait.
Whatever the motivation, it was one of many pander-free zones in that Reagan Library debate.
You even saw it in things I don’t agree with. Consider Rick Perry on the death penalty. I actually found it more than a little disturbing when the audience applauded his robust record of capital-punishment enforcement in Texas even before he had the opportunity to speak. I do think it’s used way too widely, but Perry’s record is what it is — and so he stood by it, explained it, and didn’t try to finesse it. I’m not with him, but the man seems to know who he is and is unapologetic about it.
When the last presidential race saw Barack Obama — who my friend Stanley Kurtz calls “Radical-in-Chief” for his socialist roots, a reality that has played out in his record as president — quoting Ronald Reagan, that kind of confidence has a certain refreshing appeal.
Perhaps there’s even an authenticity to Jon Huntsman’s presentation, which left everyone scratching their heads wondering what exactly his strategy is for winning a Republican primary or who precisely his constituency is. One can’t really accuse him of saying what conservative primary voters in South Carolina (or wherever) want to hear.
And then there is Rick Santorum.
Perhaps it was the Reagan overload that got to him, but MSNBC Hardball host Chris Matthews took time out from being utterly and vocally disturbed by most of the Simi Valley scene to pay a little tribute to the former Pennsylvania senator. Matthews, himself from Pennsylvania, with a brother who has long been active in politics there, has always been decent to Santorum, when many others haven’t. Just Google — or don’t, especially not at work or with kids around — Santorum’s name and you’ll see the kind of nonsense he has to put up with. It’s a real injustice, considering that he has been a self-sacrificing leader of the kind I think most Americans want in government. And so, on Hardball, he got a few minutes, which he was clearly grateful for. Matthews said, in introducing Santorum: “I think you`re very honest. I don`t think you play any games.”
Making the case for himself in the presidential race, Santorum said: “I`ve gotten things done, I`ve been willing to make the compromises necessary, but never compromises on principle as you talked about, but . . . to get things done, like welfare reform and several foreign-policy bills and pro-life measures. As you know, Chris, we`ve had some pro-life bills that got some bipartisan support that I authored. . . . But I also understand there are big problems in Washington, D.C., that need a little more of a dramatic change. And I think what I tried to bring to the table is someone who understands the need for dramatic change, for getting back to our constitutional roots. At the same time [I] can find that compromise and get things done and make things work in Washington.”
When people talk about wanting Washington to work, I think this is what they mean. They want people there who know who they are, and are willing to work with leaders of different points of view to move the bar. That’s not what Barack Obama did when he forced through his radical and unwieldy health-care plan. It is what Rick Santorum and others did when Santorum worked with Ted Kennedy and President Clinton to pass welfare reform (since rolled back by Barack Obama).
Santorum talked a little about that record at the debate when he was asked: “Where do the poor come in, where do they place in this party, on this stage, in a Santorum administration?” In response, he talked a bit about that welfare-reform history. (It built a bit on an answer Herman Cain gave at the Palmetto Freedom Forum, to a question on the connection between marriage breakdown and poverty.) In another debate, Santorum was pressed on his views on abortion and used the opportunity to talk compassionately about the violence of such a painful issue. You’ve seen the same in media interviews, when, again, pressed on what can be uncomfortable issues to discuss in the public square.
There is, of course, a certain liberation that comes from poll numbers that lead people to have no expectations for the success of your campaign. But this is who Santorum is. Anyone who, like Matthews, has watched him over the years knows that. Anyone who has listened to him three hours every Friday on radio and on Fox News, as an active fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, post-Senate, has heard it.
And it’s attractive. Even to an MSNBC host who frequently disagrees with him. Even in a climate where 54 percent polled want every member of Congress voted out of office. (How’s that for cynicism?)
“Transparency” has been a buzzword in Washington for a while now. Anyone for a revival of “authenticity.” Not putting on a mask. Just being who you are, unapologetic, except where an apology is absolutely called for. Someday historians may trace its origins back to a little Reagan Library magnetism.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online. This column is available exclusively through United Media.