Politics & Policy

Rick Santorum Marches On

Thousands marched for life yesterday. One of them might be running for president.

On an unseasonably warm day in Washington, Rick Santorum takes a relatively unassuming approach to what may be his best chance to line up supporters for another presidential run.

He participates in the March for Life like everyone else, just one passionate pro-lifer among thousands. He arrives with the masses, has no special detail, and gets no stage time at the kick-off rally despite being one of the most ardent and visible pro-life figures in the country. Aside from a morning reception for about 150 or so members of his Patriot Voices group at the Renaissance Hotel, the most attention he draws to himself is a banner for the organization — a banner on which his name is not prominently displayed. But even though he eschews the fanfare of most presidential aspirants, the crowd still seems to find Santorum. He’s a magnet, unable to go more than a few yards without a photo request or a one-, two-, or multiple-time voter encouraging him to hit the campaign trail again.

Santorum’s appearance at the annual pro-life rally comes as the former Pennsylvania senator looks to recast himself as a warrior for blue-collar workers and a reformer for the conservative economic agenda. While that doesn’t mean pro-life issues will take a backseat, Santorum doesn’t need the spotlight or the megaphone at an event like this to convince his fellow marchers of his passion for their cause: They know he’s with them, and he knows they know, so he’s free to simply take part and soak in the experience.

That said, Santorum is still the only potential 2016 contender present at the march. Prospective candidates currently in office are occupied on Capitol Hill or in their respective state houses; Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney are meeting in Utah to discuss their future plans for higher office; and Mike Huckabee is chatting with the girls of The View. Santorum’s position as the Republican field’s standard-bearer on life issues seems secure, and it’s a position he’s shown no interest in relinquishing.

On the day after the 2012 March for Life, in the immediate aftermath of his surprisingly successful finishes in the three early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, Santorum penned a Wall Street Journal op-ed in which he drew a clear line distinguishing himself from his rivals on abortion. He attacked Romney for working with Planned Parenthood and easing access to the procedure under “Romneycare” as governor of Massachusetts. He chided Newt Gingrich for hesitating to stand behind pro-life issues too. And he criticized Ron Paul’s understanding of the Fourteenth Amendment as it relates to abortion legislation. As the primaries dragged on and he emerged as the leading alternative to Romney, Santorum repeatedly hit the former governor on abortion, calling his sudden embrace of the pro-life cause a “convenient conversion” ahead of a presidential run.

At this year’s march, just hours removed and a short distance away from where House Republicans abruptly pulled a bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks, Santorum has a similar take on the GOP’s lack of resolve on pro-life issues. “It’s disappointing that a bill that passed without controversy before is now going to turn into a controversy,” he says, alluding to similar legislation passed by the House in 2013.

“It’s a group of people who have difficulty defending their position,” Santorum says of Republican politicians. “It’s hard to win the argument if you don’t make it — they don’t want to make it, and then they wonder why it’s tough to defend.”

When some members questioned the wisdom of introducing such a bill this early in the new Congress, Santorum told them that the inevitable criticism from the media will come whether they pass it now or later in the year. He encouraged anxious Republicans to think instead of the voters who sent them to Washington in the first place.

“You have all these people who worked hard in the 2014 election,” he said. “It’s another disillusionment to the people you tell all the time that elections matter.”

Santorum seems to indicate that he will be the one to live up to the voters’ expectations if given the opportunity, someone who is more in tune with the public than the pundits. While he has spent the better part of his time since 2012 trying to broaden his image, his presence at the March for Life, subdued though it may be, signifies pro-life issues will still be a central part of a potential campaign, one way or another. It’s a part of who he is.

In a sense, his most recent books represent the flanks of a would-be Santorum bid: last year’s Blue Collar Conservatives, which relates his views on how Republicans can win over working-class voters; and the upcoming Bella’s Gift, an account written with his wife, Karen, of the six years they’ve spent raising their youngest daughter, who was diagnosed with a rare and typically fatal genetic condition called Trisomy 18 at birth. That experience has taught him a lot, he says, reinforcing his views on the pro-life issue and deepening his perspective on life as a whole.

“It’s important to embrace the truth and the struggle that comes with it,” he says. It’s a message he’s sure to keep in mind no matter what comes his way in 2016.

— Andrew Johnson is an editorial associate at National Review Online.

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