In the fall of Rick Santorum’s second year as a senator, he asked an impertinent question of his colleague Russ Feingold (D., Wis.). Most Democrats in 1996, including Feingold, were defending the legality of a procedure — dubbed “partial-birth abortion” by pro-lifers — in which an abortionist partially delivered a fetus, punctured its skull, vacuumed out its brain, and then removed the remains. What, asked Santorum, if the abortionist accidentally delivered the fetus whole? Could he then “kill the baby”?
Feingold answered: “I am not the person to be answering that question. That is a question that should be answered by a doctor, and by the woman who receives the advice from the doctor. And neither I, nor is the senator from Pennsylvania, truly competent to answer those questions. That is why we should not be making those decisions here on the floor of the Senate.”
Three years later, in another debate on the issue, Santorum tried to get Senator Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.) to say how much of the baby had to be inside the mother for it to be fair game. Her answers ranged from “I agree with the Roe v. Wade decision” to “when you bring your baby home” to “I am not answering these questions.”
Other Republicans were content to rest their case on the visceral revulsion most people feel toward descriptions of partial-birth abortion. Santorum grasped the underlying logic of the legislation. Neither the Supreme Court nor the political movement for legal abortion had been able to mark a defensible outer limit to the right they defended; they could not explain just why infanticide should be illegal. Santorum was able to lay a trap for liberals because he had thought the issue through. He was able to think it through because he is intelligent, and willing to think it through because he cares about the right to life of the unborn: a combination of traits that is not ubiquitous among Republican politicians. These traits, doubtless aided by a certain sense of self, give him a moral and intellectual confidence in making his case.
So it is not surprising that social conservatives, this pro-lifer included, counted the defeat of his reelection bid among the hardest of the political losses of 2006. It is not surprising, either, that many social conservatives are supporting Santorum’s presidential campaign because he is — as the president of the Susan B. Anthony List, a pro-life group that has endorsed him, puts it — the “strongest pro-life candidate” in the race. Nor, finally, is it surprising that those Republicans who disagree with social conservatives on their top issues, or consider those issues unimportant, have generally been hostile to Santorum’s candidacy.
But the likely effects of Santorum’s current campaign are being misjudged. It is social conservatives, above all, who have the most to fear from his campaign, because it has done serious, if inadvertent, damage to their, and his, causes. It could yet do more.
In October, a sympathetic blogger asked Santorum “what we could do to advance the pro-life agenda beyond what we’ve already done.” The former senator’s answer would cause him, and other conservatives, no end of trouble over the next few months, and illustrates several of the drawbacks to his approach to politics. In the middle of a rambling response, Santorum made this comment: “One of the things I will talk about, that no president has talked about before, is I think the dangers of contraception in this country. . . . It’s not okay. It’s a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”
Santorum would later criticize the media for dwelling on his views on contraception (“gotcha politics,” he called it). But the record shows that it was Santorum himself who raised the issue, essentially unprompted. His later attempts to backtrack suggest his belated recognition of the obvious: Even in primaries filled with social conservatives, the remark was politically harmful to him. The vast majority of Americans consider contraception morally unproblematic. Most Americans who oppose abortion have no objection to contraception, which makes Santorum’s train of thought hard to follow: How could Santorum “advance the pro-life agenda” by raising an issue that splits pro-lifers, and puts him on the smaller side?
And why would Santorum think that a presidential lecture would change many Americans’ minds or behavior with respect to contraception? Surely this expectation takes confidence in one’s persuasive abilities too far, and overestimates the power of political figures to lead cultural change. Perhaps Catholic priests should do more to make the case against contraception; as someone who accepts that case, I think so. The notion that it is a president’s job to instruct the people on their moral errors, on the other hand, is both wrong and unattractive.
That stray comment has made it harder for conservatives to resist the Obama administration’s outrageous attack on religious liberty. The administration seeks to force almost all employers, including most religious employers, to offer their employees insurance that covers contraception, abortion drugs, and sterilization. Its allies accuse those who resist this mandate of waging a “war on contraception.” The fact that a leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination does seek to use high office to discourage contraceptive use, albeit non-coercively, made this largely bogus story seem more plausible.
And as the campaign has progressed, it has become clear that Santorum’s remarks on contraception would not be the only example of his not picking his battles wisely, or at all. In a 2011 speech, he said that he “almost threw up” upon reading John F. Kennedy’s famous 1960 speech to the ministers of Houston. Asked about it in late February of 2012 — in the middle of primary season — Santorum defended his words: “I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute. . . . To say that people of faith have no role in the public square? You bet that makes you throw up.”
Leave aside the adolescent diction, which Santorum later repudiated (“Obviously the language that I used was at a minimum inarticulate”). Kennedy may be one of the most overrated figures in American history, but the wisdom of attacking him in the run-up to the Michigan primary seems questionable. And when you’re attacking a bit of cherished national lore, like the Houston speech, it’s best to have your facts right. Kennedy did not, in fact, argue that “people of faith” should “have no role in the public square.” His actual argument was that religious people should not allow their religious commitments to influence their public positions. It is not an especially persuasive argument — Martin Luther King Jr. was in the midst of refuting it by personal example — but to make that retort, Santorum would have had to describe what he opposes accurately.
But leave Santorum’s imprecision aside, too. The impression that many Americans reasonably got from the dust-up was that Santorum had criticized Kennedy for believing (or believing too much) in the “separation of church and state.” Anyone at all attentive to the debates over the role of religion in American politics should know that this phrase is the source of endless miscommunication. Someone denying that the Constitution works this separation may merely mean that (for example) a public high school’s commencement ought to be able to mark the occasion with a non-sectarian prayer. But plenty of hearers will conclude that what he is saying is that the government may legitimately impose religious law on the whole country.
The combined result of just these two gaffes: Americans seeing Santorum a lot on TV for the first time learned that he dislikes the separation of church and state and wants to discourage contraception. Is it any wonder that a lot of people leaped to the incorrect conclusion that he is hostile to religious liberty, wants to ban contraception, and sees the primary task of government as the enforcement of a moral code that not many people share?
Reinforcing that impression is Santorum’s history as a religious controversialist. He has said that Satan is leading mainline Protestant denominations astray, characterized liberal versions of Christianity as distortions of the faith, and claimed that longtime bête noire John McCain has no religious faith. It is not clear that Santorum appreciates that such comments strike many people as presumptuous, self-righteous, and uncharitable. (To see Satan at work only among one’s opponents is not to see him plain.)
Here too there is a danger for social conservatives. They are commonly, and to their detriment, associated with these traits, even though their views need not partake of them. The more that social conservatives elevate Santorum as a leader, the more likely they will be to deepen those associations. It is not as though Santorum can flip a switch on this aspect of his personality. Asked about his string of losses among Catholic voters on the eve of the Illinois primary, Santorum replied that he was doing well among people who take their faith seriously — attacking, not all that implicitly, the religious beliefs and integrity of millions of Republican primary voters.
One thing that most people involved in politics agree on is that battles over social issues are usually lost by the side that the public perceives as the aggressor. That’s why, for example, the political debates over judicial nominees so often devolve into arguments over whether those nominees would impose their views on the nation or whether their opponents are being intolerant of those views. The public seems to dislike bitter argument over social issues and to punish those it considers responsible for starting it. It is willing to support socially liberal or socially conservative candidates, but it reacts negatively to zealotry or perceived zealotry. The most successful social-conservative politicians acknowledge this unease even if they do not fully embrace it.
Santorum does not make this gesture. He has done little to combat the impression that his priorities are not the same as those of the public, or are not even comprehensible to it. Even when he was trying to explain that falling unemployment does not obviate the rationale for his candidacy, he managed to widen that distance. “I don’t care what the unemployment rate’s going to be,” he said. He didn’t mean that, not really; but he has never said anything remotely similar about, say, online pornography.
When Santorum narrowly lost the Michigan and Ohio primaries, it seemed clear that some of his remarks — his criticism of JFK and his claim that Obama wants people to go to college because he is a snob who wants people to lose their faith — had reduced his support. The lesson that many journalists and even Republican politicians drew, the latter mostly quietly, was that social conservatism is a liability. But the evidence for that view is much weaker than the evidence that Santorum’s brand of social conservatism — with its abrasive tone, its lack of strategic discrimination, its proud refusal to acknowledge political reality — is destined for defeat.
It is a basic fact of contemporary political life that socially conservative views are poorly understood by many people and very easy to distort. The promotion of these views requires that fence-sitters receive regular reassurance from social conservatives: that, for one thing, we understand the limits on the proper role of government in a free society. It would be nice if other Republican politicians had a little more of Santorum’s commitment to justice for the unborn, and more of his alarm at the rising proportion of children not being raised in a household with both their biological parents. But our obligation as voters is to justice and the common good before it is to politicians who share our views about them. Social conservatives would not advance their aims by putting Santorum on the Republican ticket this fall.
The Bible (Matthew 10:16) says that we should be as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves: always good advice.
—Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor of National Review.