Rick Santorum has lost only one race in his long political career, and the loss made him a better candidate. The conservative movement has not definitively won a single race for the Republican presidential nomination since 1984, yet it has been appallingly slow to recognize Santorum’s philosophical and electoral strengths. If conservatives want a winner and a champion, Rick Santorum is their man.
Far too many activists on the right, with too little reason, have believed the assertion that Santorum is some sort of big-government conservative. They base this belief almost entirely on his record of supporting spending earmarks (small potatoes compared with the savings he supported in the form of entitlement and welfare reforms) and on two Bush-era votes while he was the third-ranking senator in the Republican caucus — all of which have been blown out of proportion and removed from context.
The first of those votes was on the No Child Left Behind education bill. These days, most conservatives despise the law. But very few conservatives felt that way ten years ago; their use of it now as an ideological test case is entirely revisionist. At the time, it passed both congressional chambers overwhelmingly: 91–8 in the Senate and 384–45 in the House. Solid conservatives such as Sam Brownback, Jim Bunning, Jeff Sessions, Fred Thompson, Dick Armey, Dan Burton, Steve Chabot, Henry Hyde, J. C. Watts, and Paul Ryan all supported it.
“I hated that bill,” Santorum volunteered in a February 11 interview, digressing from another topic without being prompted. “The president needed it, and it was his signature accomplishment. And we had to do something about education — and testing, done right, was and is a good thing. So I thought I had to take one for the team. It was a mistake.”
The second Bush-era vote was the Medicare Part D prescription-drug program. It put Santorum in a bind. For eleven years, he had pushed relentlessly for the creation of Health Savings Accounts (HSAs), a deeply conservative initiative. Due in large part to his efforts, the Part D bill included them. Anybody who has watched legislators work knows how hard it is for a major reform’s sponsor to abandon it after so much effort. Combined with the inclusion of several other first-ever free-market mechanisms within Part D (such as competition among insurance providers), HSAs gave Santorum reason to stick with the Senate leadership and the president in voting for the new drug program.
Against those two supposed apostasies, the rest of Santorum’s record is exemplary, beginning with his leadership in the Gang of Seven that exposed mostly Democratic corruption at the House’s bank and post office, helping pave the way for the 1994 Republican congressional ascendancy. A pro-growth anti-taxer, he almost always received 100 percent ratings from Americans for Tax Reform and regularly scored in the 80s and 90s with other groups that advocate low taxes. On spending issues and the free market, his ratings were likewise punctuated with 90s and 100s from the likes of the National Federation of Independent Business, the National Small Business Association, the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council, the League of Private Property Voters, and the Campaign for Working Families. His lifetime American Conservative Union rating was 88 — remarkable coming from somebody representing (and elected four times from) a Democratic-leaning district in a Democratic-leaning state. (More on that in a moment.) It takes far more courage to vote that way from western Pennsylvania than from, say, Utah, or a safe seat in Georgia.
Small-government advocates carp about Santorum’s public denunciations of libertarianism, but those denunciations were mostly aimed at social libertarianism and at libertarians’ weak defense policies, not at free-market economics.
“I agree with the idea of limiting government for its own sake,” Santorum says. “I think Ron Paul is right that we have gone way beyond the Constitution and way beyond the bounds of what is good for our country.” On the Federal Reserve: “I want to get rid of the dual mission. The mission should be sound money. Asking the Fed to target unemployment too is just a way to cover for the Left pursuing bad fiscal or tax policies.”
Santorum’s stalwart conservatism on social issues ranging from abortion to home schooling to gun rights (NRA rating: A+), and his signal leadership in sponsoring and managing the successful welfare-reform effort in the Senate in 1996, are already well known.
Even as a member of the Senate leadership, when a few of his “take one for the team” votes disappointed conservatives, Santorum was the go-to guy for conservative groups wanting more consideration from Republican honchos. Numerous leaders of the conservative legal-issue pantheon confirm that he outworked most members of the Senate Judiciary Committee (of which he was not a member) in support of conservative judges. He led when others cowered on the matter of market-based entitlement reforms, and, when campaigning against insurmountable odds for reelection in 2006, he recruited conservative hero Jim DeMint rather than an establishment-friendly colleague to sit in his place at leadership meetings he missed.
Ah, yes, what about the 2006 Senate race that he lost by 17.4 points? Around that one blemish hangs the entire myth that Santorum lacks real political chops.
Consider the circumstances. He was running as a Republican in a state with 600,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans. He was running in one of the worst years for Republicans nationally since the Great Depression (30 lost House seats, six lost in the Senate). He was running against the namesake son of the most popular Pennsylvania governor in half a century — and a (supposed) pro-lifer to boot, taking away his edge with single-issue life voters. Santorum, facing almost certain defeat, went down with flags flying, refusing to abandon conservative principles merely to try cutting a losing margin. (In neighboring Ohio, a much more conservative state, incumbent senator Mike DeWine lost by more than twelve points, yet came back later to win election as attorney general.)
Even so, Santorum outpolled the Republican running for governor: NFL Hall of Famer Lynn Swann lost by 20 points. Four Pennsylvania congressional seats switched from Republican to Democrat, and another incumbent Republican held on by just 3,200 votes. Republicans also lost eight seats in the state House. Santorum was running in quicksand.
Conservatives wanting a better sense of how Rick Santorum runs a political campaign should watch video footage of Dave Wottle running the 800-meter race in the 1972 Olympics. Sporting a signature piece of clothing (Wottle ran in an awkward golf cap; Santorum is famous for his sweater vests), Wottle demonstrated neither the compact power of a sprinter nor the easy grace of a marathoner — but after quickly falling so far back in last place that the camera lost sight of him, Wottle put on a miraculous closing rush just when it mattered most. Out of nowhere, he won gold.
That’s what Santorum has done in race after race after race. In 1990, a bad year nationally for Republicans (they lost eight House seats), running against a popular seven-term incumbent who outspent him $717,000 to $251,000, a virtually unknown Santorum knocked on 25,000 doors and, with a closing rush, won a 51–49 upset victory. Redistricted into a heavily Democratic constituency two years later (one that gave the incumbent president George H. W. Bush just 30 percent of the vote), Santorum won reelection with an astonishing 61 percent. In 1994, incumbent Democratic senator Harris Wofford had the lead in the spring and James Carville running his campaign, but Santorum stretched past him as well. In 2000, with another unpopular Bush at the top of the ticket (George W. Bush lost Pennsylvania by 4.2 percentage points) and Democrats targeting him as a right-wing extremist, Santorum won a 6.9-point victory.
Santorum’s presidential campaign has followed this same pattern. An underdog — underfunded, underappreciated, and sometimes simply overlooked — Santorum first shocked pundits by winning Iowa with a Wottle-like closing sprint. Again written off after mediocre results in four intervening contests, the Pennsylvanian absolutely lapped the field in Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado.
Santorum says that losing the race in 2006 was good for him. During his final few years in the Senate, his demeanor had declined from merely brash to a bit overbearing. He was, as the saying goes, wound too tight.
“I was so consumed with what I was doing in the Senate. When you exist for it, it kind of stunts your growth. I felt like I wasn’t experiencing and living life the way I should have with respect to others, probably with too much vanity, lack of humility, etc. I look back at myself then and see myself now, and I just take things a little gentler now than I did before. It’s not that I’ve lost my passion, but maybe I have a little better perspective. On a personal level, it was probably the best thing that ever happened to me to lose — to focus on my family and just trying to work on things to be a little bit more aware of the things around you. I still fervently believe all the things I believed, but maybe there’s a better approach to getting people to join your team than just a blitz.”
Santorum has impressed people on the presidential campaign trail with his patience, with his willingness to listen and respond with respect to questions on any subject, and with his genuine and palpable personal decency. Yes, some critics say he can still come across as a bit too dour, not sunny enough or quick enough with a smile. But compared with how he sometimes appeared six years ago, Santorum is strikingly more approachable, more relaxed, more upbeat.
These improvements show up in polls, especially in the basic favorable/unfavorable ratings. In a Public Policy Polling survey in February, his numbers among Republicans were substantially better than those of his adversaries: 64 percent favorable to just 22 percent unfavorable, compared with Romney’s weak 44–43 margin and Gingrich’s net negatives. And while straight horse-race polls so far before an election are hardly accurate predictors of final results, some have found Santorum faring better against Barack Obama than the other three candidates in the Republican field do.
Meanwhile, Santorum is developing some effective general-election campaign messages: that the overarching imperative is to preserve individual liberty, that manufacturing and manual labor are important economic and cultural touchstones, and that people can be trusted to manage most of their affairs without being told what to do by a president who “thinks he’s better than you.”
As Artur Davis, a former Democratic congressman from Alabama, put it at National Review Online, Santorum “empathizes with battered places Republicans normally don’t see” and speaks with “a clarity and directness . . . that post-Reagan Republicans have struggled to find.” Morton Blackwell, an astute observer of conservative politics, concurs: “The longer and better you know him, the more you like and trust him.”
Republican voters increasingly appear to be coming around to Blackwell’s view. If Republicans choose Santorum as their standard-bearer, the broader electorate is likely to do so as well.
– Mr. Hillyer is a senior fellow at the Center for Individual Freedom and a senior editorof The American Spectator.