Rick Santorum Wants to Save Us From Barack Obama

Fear and loathing on the campaign trail

The road to the White House often begins in places just like this — the harshly lit back room of a barbecue joint in Columbia, South Carolina. Unfortunately for Rick Santorum, at the moment he’s having trouble convincing a particularly spirited South Carolina senior that he’s even old enough for the job.

“You look so young,” she drawls, leaning on her cane as she sidles past Santorum’s table. The former Senator (who, like all former Senators, still goes by “Senator”) looks up from his plate of fried chicken at Doc’s Barbeque & Southern Buffet and smiles politely.

“I’m not that young,” he says good-naturedly.

She sizes him up. “How old are you?”

“I’m 52,” the Senator says.

She eyes him suspiciously, then moves on and sits at a table next to his.

The woman in question — or, more accurately, doing the questioning — isn’t some random octogenarian. She’s the mother-in-law of Joe Wilson — that Joe Wilson, the South Carolina Congressman who infamously interrupted last year’s health-care address by bellowing “You lie!” at President Obama. Luckily for Santorum, if Joe’s mother-in-law is also a died-in-the-wool skeptic, she’s at least polite enough not to call him out in the middle of lunch. After all, this is the South.  

The Senator and the Mother-in-Law have come here today not in support of Joe Wilson (though he’s engaged in a tough reelection battle), but rather to help rally support for Joe’s 37-year-old stepson Alan, an Iraq war vet running for South Carolina attorney general. As relaxed and affable as a fraternity brother, Alan thanks the lunchtime crowd — about 50 fly-the-flag, backbone-of-America types, all white — for coming, gives a brief commercial for himself, then introduces today’s featured guest: the ex-Senator from Pennsylvania.

If you haven’t seen Rick Santorum in a while, let me just say this: He looks good. Really good. Lean. Tan. Hair slightly longer than he used to wear it, lessening the scrubbed-seminarian thing he always had going on. And if you’ve never seen Rick Santorum in the flesh, let me just say this: In person, he’s far softer and friendlier than he typically comes across on TV or in sound bites, much more like the next-door neighbor you enjoy chatting with about your kids or your lawn or the baseball playoffs.

At least until the subject turns to America, at which point Rick Santorum, well, goes off the reservation a bit, as they say. Standing at the front of the room, he says appropriately enthusiastic things about Alan Wilson, then smoothly segues into the apocalyptic message he has come here today to deliver, that he somehow feels he must deliver:

After nearly 235 years, the very idea of America is now, suddenly, at risk.

“I think ultimately this is the most important issue that has maybe ever faced this country,” Santorum tells the crowd when the subject of health-care reform comes up. “If Obamacare goes into effect, America as we know it — the America you grew up in, the America these young people here today aspire to live in — is going to go away. We will go from a government that is limited to a government that has the ability to do whatever it wants — make you buy anything, sell anything.

“That is a fundamentally different country than our founders set up,” he continues, his eyes somberly scanning the crowd. “For the first time in the history of the world, we were going to have a structure of government that said the people are the ones who have rights, not the sovereign. And where do those rights come from?”He asks this rhetorically, but the crowd is so in sync with the message that they respond out loud. “God,” they murmur in unison.

“Right. God,” Santorum says softly. “The Constitution recognized rights that are inalienable. That God has given us.”

After the talk, Santorum stands outside the restaurant, shaking hands. Joe Wilson’s mother-in-law appears, and Santorum raises his eyebrows in a playful “How’d I do?” expression.

She grabs his hand and smiles. Santorum may be preaching to the converted, but the converted are clearly happy to sit and listen to the sermon.

GOOGLE THE NAME “Rick Santorum,” and among the first results you get — before his PAC, before the column he’s been writing for the Inquirer since 2007, second only to his Wikipedia entry — is a link to a website called Spreadingsantorum.com. There, the word “Santorum” is defined as — please skip the rest of this sentence if you’re the prudish type — “the frothy mix of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the by-product of anal sex.” The definition is courtesy of edgy syndicated sex columnist Dan Savage, who seven years ago, in the wake of some notorious comments Santorum made about a Supreme Court homosexuality case (Santorum argued that using the right to privacy to allow homosexual sex opened the door to any kind of consensual sex, including “man on dog”), challenged his readers to concoct an appropriately mocking new meaning for the Senator’s surname. They didn’t disappoint.

Santorum’s “Google problem,” as it’s become known, is a reminder of just how much of a punch line, at least among liberals, Rick Santorum had morphed into by the time he left the Senate in the first days of 2007. And maybe not just liberals. In the 2006 election, even the conservative blue-collar voters who were the bedrock of Santorum’s base seemed to abandon him, giving Democrat Bob Casey Jr. a yawning 18-point win (the gap in this area was anywhere from 24 points in Delaware and Montgomery counties to an astonishing 68 points in Philadelphia) and presaging the great wave of anti-Republicanism that would sweep Barack Obama into office in 2008.

Four years after being told to take a hike, however, Rick Santorum is not only back on the public stage, but boldly, unexpectedly — okay, some might say psychotically — eyeing the biggest prize of all: the White House. Since January, Santorum has made more than a dozen trips to early primary states Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, spreading the love for conservative candidates there and laying the groundwork for a potential presidential run in 2012.

It takes, of course, a pretty big ego and a fair amount of arrogance to run for president — to say that of the 300 million people in America, you and you alone are most qualified to lead the country. Whether Santorum holds himself in such high esteem isn’t quite clear yet. But what is obvious is his 100 percent certainty that Barack Obama poses a danger to America. So if the best chance of stopping Obama is for Rick Santorum to run, then, to borrow a phrase the Senator likes to use, so be it.

“I am … deeply concerned that we have a President who doesn’t love America for what it is, but likes America for what he can transform it into,” Santorum writes me in an e-mail 10 days after I see him on the stump in South Carolina. “This means that he wants to change the free-market system that has allowed Americans to succeed or fail greatly, at the same time not believing that America has a special place on the world stage to lead. As a country we go on believing every day that we will always remain a great power. I’m sure the Greeks and Romans did, too.”

Coming from another conservative — former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, radio commentator Rush Limbaugh, Dancing With the Stars mom Sarah Palin — such remarks might sound calculated or cynical, lumps of sugar thrown out to rile up the Tea Partying masses. But not from Santorum. Think what you want about his views — and it’s hard to find anybody who doesn’t think something about him — he has always said what he believed and believed what he said.
And right now, Rick Santorum, sent looking for work by Pennsylvanians four years ago, is saying he is very afraid for our country.

THERE IS SOMETHING not quite of this era about Santorum. In an age of hip-hop and pop, he’s a devotee of classical music. In a time when it’s said that no one reads anymore, he reads prodigiously — not fluff, but difficult things, like political philosophy and the Constitution. And in a country that’s wrapped its arms around the idea of the “modern family,” Santorum’s couldn’t be more old-fashioned: He and his wife are raising seven children (another, Gabriel, died just after birth in 1996), whom they’ve home-schooled. If all this seems, well, hard in comparison to the way many of us now live — seven kids! — that may be the point: To Santorum, what’s worthwhile in life isn’t always easy, or even pleasant.

On Election Night 2006, Santorum stood at a podium in a Pittsburgh hotel with his wife and some of his children gathered around him and gave a concession speech to what was left of his supporters. In another sign of how loathed and ridiculed he’d become, video of the speech — in which one of his daughters bursts into tears — mockingly sped around the Internet, while audio from the speech (which was actually quite gracious) for a time became a best-selling ringtone, a rub-it-in soundtrack for liberals. The electorate, it seemed, didn’t just want Santorum to leave — they wanted to humiliate him on the way out.

Despite having trailed in the polls for months, Santorum was unprepared for the loss. “It was a huge shock to him,” says someone in the Senator’s orbit in D.C., who says it was the first time Santorum’s political antenna malfunctioned so badly. This person adds that in the four years since, Santorum hasn’t really recovered. “It’s not the power he misses,” this insider says. “It’s influencing and shaping the debate.”

In the wake of the loss, Santorum did what many ex-pols do: He set about making money and turning himself into a pundit. At the behest of fellow GOPer Brian Tierney, he began writing a weekly column for the Inquirer, cheekily titled “The Elephant in the Room.” He joined a D.C.-based conservative think tank, the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he heads a group focused on Islamofascism. He signed on with Fox News as a commentator and began pinch-hitting for conservative commentator Bill Bennett on his syndicated radio show. He even got involved in technology, as vice president for development at Mpower Media, which was developing a device to filter offensive content from household TVs and computers.

Away from the Senate and its demanding schedule, Santorum also could live the sort of family life he’s long hungered for. “I had the chance to actually be the husband and father that I wanted to be,” he explains. “I got to coach my sons’ Little League teams, attend choral concerts and other events for my children. … Just being more of a ‘normal’ husband by helping Karen in the house by cooking dinners, shopping for groceries, fixing things around the house and helping out with school car pools.”

As it turned out, the ability to focus on family was well-timed: In May 2008, Karen gave birth to a baby girl named Isabella, who has a disorder called trisomy 18. (She has three number 18 chromosomes, rather than two.) Ninety percent of children who have the condition die before or during childbirth, and 90 percent of those who survive die within the first year. While Santorum says some doctors suggested that Bella’s life “wasn’t worth saving,” the couple brought her to Philadelphia, to CHOP, where doctors had experienced some success working with trisomy 18 patients. Today, Bella is two and a half, and though she requires constant care, Santorum calls her “a beautiful gift that has changed all of us who are privileged to love and care for her.”

The Santorums’ commitment to their daughter isn’t just admirable. It’s also a stark reminder that in contrast to some other politicians, Santorum attempts to live by the values he preaches. Those close to the family say it’s also an example of the personal kindness and decency that he possesses, but that’s been obscured by his hard-line positions on social issues. “I’ve known him through the birth of a lot of his kids, and every one seems to have made him more gentle and more patient,” says Robert Traynham, who served as Santorum’s communications director for six years and who’s now Washington bureau chief for the Comcast Network.

Traynham has a particularly interesting vantage point on Santorum. He’s gay, and Santorum has made plenty of waves with his remarks regarding homosexuality. (He’s said any sex act outside of traditional heterosexual sex undermines society and the family.) But Traynham says he’s never heard the Senator utter a homophobic word, and that during their tenure together, Traynham’s sexuality was never an issue. “When I told him I was gay, he said, ‘Oh, Robert, I knew that. It doesn’t change how I feel about you.’” The only place he and Santorum disagree, Traynham says, is over gay marriage, which Santorum adamantly opposes.

 

It’s interesting that after four years of living a civilian life — including fighting with health insurance companies over Bella’s treatment — Santorum seems not more open to the idea of government helping people with problems, but less so. Indeed, while he expresses a grudging admiration for the scope of the legislation Democrats have been able to pass over the past two years — “Give Barack Obama credit. They’ve done historic changes” — he’s also clearly horrified by it. Obamacare? Of course it needs to be repealed. Government bailouts? Political giveaways.

Santorum saves his sharpest darts, however, not for the President’s policies, but for the President himself, whose very patriotism, it seems fair to say, he questions. In September, the morning after several big Tea Party victories around the country (including Christine O’Donnell’s stunner in Delaware), Santorum speaks at a fund-raising breakfast in Charleston, South Carolina, for a Republican candidate for the state legislature. Turning to President Obama’s views on America’s place in the world, Santorum urges the crowd to go back and read some of Obama’s campaign speeches from 2008. “They’re long on hope and change, but read the stuff before he gets to hope and change,” Santorum says. “It’s a blanket condemnation of America. He wraps it around George Bush, but he’s not condemning Bush policies, he’s condemning America. He talks about, ‘Oh, we’re not respected around the world.’ Well, that’s not because of Bush. It’s because of America asserting its influence in the world, which Obama thinks is bad. … You can’t be a president who wants to be the most loved character in the world. I think President Bush is a lot more respected in the world than Barack Obama is.” Santorum pauses for a moment. “Despite his Nobel Peace prize.” The crowd — about 40 people, most looking fairly preppy — laughs.

This is typical of Santorum’s remarks about Obama, all of which say, in effect, “Wake up, folks! Can’t you see he’s ruining the country?” At another point in the same talk, he urges the group to read a recent interview with Obama in which the reporter asked the President if he believed in “American exceptionalism” — the idea that because of our founding principles and devotion to liberty, America is unique in the world. “His answer was: I believe in American exceptionalism, just like I know the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greece’s exceptionalism,” Santorum says, sounding incredulous. “He doesn’t believe in us! He doesn’t believe in the principles that made this the greatest country in the history of the world.

“You know why Tea Parties have risen up?” Santorum continues. “You want to know why there’s anxious people everywhere you go? Because they know at a foundational level, America is at risk.”

RICK SANTORUM CLEARLY BELIEVES in American exceptionalism, in the impact our ideals have had around the globe. “Capitalism and freedom have doubled life expectancy in 200 years,” he says. “People say, ‘Oh, it was gonna happen anyway with technology.’ Well, where do you think the technology came from? Did technology develop in the Muslim world?”

 

That said, Santorum also clearly believes we’re losing our way as a nation. In Santorum’s America, not only would there be no government bailouts and no Obamacare, but Social Security would be privatized, and the feds would keep their nose out of things like global warming. In short, we would have far less government involvement in our lives.

Except when we’d have more. He’s also opposed to abortion, and favors a Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. If some see those positions as contradictory, in Santorum’s view they are exactly what the Founding Fathers intended: a country where we are all protected from the power of the government, but where we all agree to live by certain values.

But whose values? If there’s a cornerstone of Santorum’s nascent campaign, it was laid in Houston in September, when the Senator gave an address marking the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s speech about the separation of church and state — a speech in which JFK sought to assure the country that the Pope wouldn’t be hiding out in a back room at the White House, telling him what to do. Santorum came to Houston, however, not to praise Kennedy, but to bury him.

While bigotry against Catholics made it necessary, Santorum argued, for JFK to address the religion issue, he went way, way too far in separating faith and politics. In short, JFK took language in the Constitution meant to protect religion from government and wrongly used it to protect government from religion. He chose to “expel faith” from public discourse, Santorum said, thereby setting off a 50-year run of secularism.

“The sad fact is, [Kennedy] could have stood by his beliefs and won; he chose not to,” Santorum said. “Instead he charted a course that has won many elections, but has put American civilization at risk.”

 

Santorum’s Houston speech was a long, difficult one, highly intellectual and filled with references to or quotes from four popes, John Henry Newman, Martin Luther King, C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton (not to mention, uh, New York Senator Chuck Schumer). But the point of it wasn’t to rouse the troops; rather, it was to frame — for himself, for the country, perhaps for history — the proper relationship between church and state. It was, in short, the kind of political address we don’t hear anymore.

“Well, it’s more of an academic speech than a political document,” Santorum replies when I ask him about it in Charleston. “The best reaction I got that night was three philosophy professors who came up to me and said that, you know, we didn’t expect this. We expected some sort of right-wing political discussion. And one said, ‘I will assign your speech in my philosophy class. This is something we will chew on for days.’”

As we’re chatting, two middle-aged women approach, and Santorum politely explains what we’re talking about.

“That’s what we love about you,” one says. “You’re very thoughtful.”

“I don’t know … ” Santorum says bashfully.

“Are you Catholic?” the other asks.

“I am,” Santorum says.

Go-o-o-d!” the woman replies, though it’s tough to tell whether she means it … or the exact opposite.

Not that Santorum seems to care what others think about him, or his views. As he stated near the end of his Houston speech, “I have always felt comfortable to be on the path our founders took, the one that is now less traveled and invites the most criticism.”

To put it another way: Make all the anal sex jokes you want about me, folks. I’m not wavering on what I believe.

WILL SANTORUM ACTUALLY RUN for president? He says he doesn’t know yet, and there’s no reason not to believe him. “After the midterms, I’ll sit down with my family, and we’ll need to have a serious discussion about what role to play in the next election,” he says.

 

It’s probably also too soon to say for sure that he couldn’t win. While he certainly doesn’t have the name recognition of a Sarah Palin or even Mitt Romney, these are strange times in American politics — the Tea Party is proof enough of that. “At this point, it’s possible to see a road for anyone,” says campaign expert Stuart Rothenberg, of The Rothenberg Political Report. “Rick’s an ambitious guy, he didn’t leave the Senate voluntarily, and right now the presidential race is wide open. So he probably figures, why not him?”

At Doc’s Barbeque & Southern Buffet, at his visit in support of Joe Wilson’s stepson Alan, Santorum urges the crowd to stay committed to the fight, this month and beyond. “I hope we have a big change in November, and I think we will,” he says. “But if we don’t, Barack Obama is not done. And even if we’re successful, the best we can hope for is we’ll stop him from doing any more bad things. These laws are still gonna be there. His EPA is going to regulate the amount of carbon we consume. He’s going to try to pass legislation that will limit the amount of CO2 that you can breathe.”

The crowd blanches at this idea, and a low rumble spreads around the room. “They’re not done telling you how to run your life,” Rick Santorum continues, suddenly deciding it’s time to make fun of his enemies even as he issues a warning about America’s coming doom. “Because they’re smarter than you are, and they know better than you.”

  • James

    I didn’t subscribe to Philadelphia Magazine to get right wing propaganda. If I did, I would have subscribed to NewsMax and National Review.

  • John

    BigCheese…propaganda. This article reads like journalism – very rare these days.

  • Scott

    Philadelphia Magazine, when did you move so far right ? what a disgusting article from a disgusting individual

  • DEBORAH

    What is wrong with Phily Mag wrining a nice article about Rick Santorum!! Does the Left Wing Media have the right to bash any canadate simpley because they have a different political belief. What a re