Politics & Policy

Santorum, the Blue-Collar Brawler

(Getty Images)
His message for Romney: Bring on the re-match.

I’m sitting across from Rick Santorum at a Corner Bakery Cafe on North Capitol Street, near the U.S. Capitol, when a news alert flashes across my phone. The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Mitt Romney has told a group of his top donors that he is seriously considering a third White House bid.

Santorum smiles broadly. “Bring it on,” he says. The surprise runner-up in the 2012 Republican primary, Santorum won eleven primaries and caucuses before eventually conceding a hard-fought battle to Romney. Now, he wants a rematch.

Though the 2016 Republican field is likely to be crowded with candidates looking to woo conservative Christians, Santorum is not cowed. Asked what unique space he thinks he would fill in the field, he says, “The winner.”

“If we get in, we’re getting in to win,” Santorum says. “I’m not getting in to play a role. I’d get in because I think I have what it takes to win a primary and because I think I have what it takes to win a general election.” He talks like he’s already announced his campaign. “I’m not just in it to win a primary,” he says. 

Santorum isn’t shying away from a confrontation with Jeb Bush, either. “Most Americans earn what they get. They don’t start off with a head start,” he says. He acknowledges that there are benefits and drawbacks to nominating somebody like Bush, a political legacy with near-universal name recognition, but it doesn’t take much prodding to get him to offer his own opinion. “Obviously if I thought it was really a good thing, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here at the table,” he says.

Santorum has long delighted in poking his finger in the eye of the Washington establishment and, based on the media coverage his preliminary campaign moves have generated – close to zero – one might suspect that the establishment is repaying him in kind. But Santorum has proven he has the ability to make himself a force despite long odds. His brashness and refusal, at the age of 35, to respect the Senate’s traditional rules of seniority in many ways prefigured the dozens of lawmakers who would be swept to office by the Tea Party. His election to the Senate in 1994, a rebuke to Clinton health-care plan that he denounced gleefully on the campaign trail, may prove relevant once again on the debate stage in 2016.

Santorum has summoned former staffers to a Tuesday-evening meeting in the Washington, D.C., offices of the American Continental Group, the workplace of Beltway lobbyist and Santorum confidant David Urban. There, according to a top aide, Santorum will “let them know what he’s been doing” in preparation for another presidential campaign.

The former Pennsylvania senator may not have made many friends in Washington, but he thinks the victories he pulled out in 2012 — on what was a shoestring budget compared with Romney’s — were a vindication of his convictions. Namely, that social issues are central to the identity of the GOP and that country-club Republicans can take a hike.

“I never went to a country club until I was in college,” he says. Whatever the case, Santorum’s 2012 victories certainly showed that however much the GOP establishment disdains him, Republican voters certainly like him well enough.

Santorum has for months now been criticizing Romney’s economic message and the Republican party that put him forward as its presidential nominee. His 2014 book, Blue Collar Conservatives, was an explicit rejection of the GOP economic platform as well as an attempt to rebrand himself: Santorum the culture warrior became the champion of the working class. “When all you do is talk to people who are owners, talk to folks who are Type As who want to succeed economically, we’re talking to a very small group of people,” Santorum told a crowd at the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s annual conference in June 2013. “No wonder they don’t think we care about them. No wonder they don’t think we understand them.”

If he runs in 2016, he says, it won’t be as a candidate defined by his Catholic, socially conservative views. He’s been there and done that, he says. In 2016, he is more likely to define himself as an economic populist and foreign-policy hawk.

Santorum explains the Republican establishment’s growing discomfort with social conservatism in populist terms. “The money that funds the party,” he says, comes from individuals who may be fiscally conservative and hawkish on issues of national security but who live on the coasts and have largely abandoned socially conservative causes. “The money that supports the Republican party overwhelmingly comes from places we lose,” he says.

He sounds not dissimilar from Ted Cruz, who likes to denounce the “gray beards” in the top echelons of the Republican party and its consulting class. I ask Santorum what he thinks of Cruz, Rand Paul, and the new generation of Republican leaders, and whether it’s time for the old guard, including himself, Romney, and Bush to step aside and make way for them.

He pauses. “I would make the case that we’ve seen six years of somebody with limited experience jump into the presidency and many of us felt that it hasn’t worked out so well for the country,” he says.

Always a brawler, Santorum is ready for the next fight. 

— Eliana Johnson is Washington editor of National Review.

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