Rick Santorum: The No. 3 man in the Senate leadership is hard at work spreading the GOP gospel. Will his crusades take him all the way to the White House?
Taking a stand: Santorum is now in the front ranks of the faith-based GOP
By Howard Fineman
Dec. 27 / Jan. 3 issue - For most denizens of Washington, politics is a living, perhaps a way of life. For Rick Santorum, it is a bruising crusade. As a student in the dissolute 1970s, he smoked his share of pot at Penn State and was, by his own account, somewhat casual about his Roman Catholic faith. Now, still boyish at 46, he is a devout and devoted family man—father to six home-schooled children—and a senator determined to champion the church's traditional moral principles in the public square. In the reception area of his office, there's a predictably appropriate portrait of Pennsylvania's Ben Franklin, bibulous deist. But the one on the wall in the sanctum of Santorum is of Thomas More, sainted for losing his life in defense of Rome's control of English Christendom. "That picture's up there for a reason," Santorum said in an interview. "There was a guy who was willing to stand up for things that were not particularly popular, and he paid the price for it."
Thus far, however, Santorum's story is the opposite of More's: professions of belief have been his ticket to the top. He's become one of the shrewdest players in the front ranks of the faith-based Republican Party George W. Bush and Karl Rove have erected. As the third-ranking Republican in a majority soon to expand to 55 members, Santorum is close to the White House, operates one of the largest personal campaign funds and is a point man on hot-button issues ranging from gay marriage to Social Security. Used to being the youngest or the first, Santorum won a seat in the U.S. House at 32 (with hundreds of anti-abortion activists serving as his shock troops) and one in the Senate at 36. His combatively devout approach is one Republicans are hoping will expand their control in the decade ahead by winning over traditional Catholics in Great Lakes states and Hispanic voters everywhere. It's an approach Santorum has told friends he thinks can propel him to the presidency someday.
Perhaps, but it may not be easy to persuade the GOP, let alone the country, to accept the full Santorum canon. Evolution, he says, should be taught in public schools, but only as a still-controversial scientific theory that "has holes." There is no constitutionally based right to privacy, he says, arguing that it is a phony legal concoction foisted on the country by liberal judges. As it happens, the 1965 case which declared the existence of privacy rights legitimized contraception. He calls that case, and others that followed it, a "massive usurpation of power by the judiciary." "Would I ban contraception in the states as a state legislator? No way. Would I do it as a federal official? No way." Even so, he said, each state should be free to legislate the matter on its own. If that means the banning of contraception (or, presumably, adultery or premarital sex), then so be it. "It should be the same with sodomy laws," he said. "Texas should have had the right. People should have had the right."
Santorum's high regard for states' rights doesn't extend to the question of who can marry legally. He favors a federal constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman. A "nonuniform definition of marriage" would cause too much "disruption in the culture," Santorum said. When Utah was admitted to the Union, he said, "they had to give up polygamy. So we all understood then that marriage and family were such core institutions of this country that having different laws in different states would disassemble the family. And when it came to something as foundational as that, we could not have dissension."
Santorum frightens the big shots, then becomes one. Arriving in the House, Santorum joined a crusade to shutter the members' cushy bank. His knee-capping style caught the eye of soon-to-be-Speaker Newt Gingrich. New in the Senate, Santorum demanded punishment for a senior Republican who had blockaded a GOP-sponsored balanced-budget amendment. The accused survived; his accuser was tapped for leadership.
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But Santorum has taken incoming of his own. He's been stung by criticism from early supporters who view him as an apostate for helping to save the Judiciary Committee chairmanship for his Pennsylvania colleague, moderate (i.e., pro-choice) Arlen Specter. Some of the denunciations have been vituperative. "That comes with the territory, and I'm not upset with anybody," said Santorum, who in fact sounded upset, and who is not known for thick skin.
Santorum had better get used to it. Attacks—from right and left—are sure to rise as he juggles the sometimes clashing roles of Senate power broker and cultural militant. "Rick is going to have to help make sausage like the rest of us," said a fellow Republican senator. "That is going to mean sometimes saying 'no' to the base." Yet he can't do that too often or he'll lose what is distinctive about his political persona. His relevant role model may not be an English saint but an American from Missouri. "If you can't stand the heat," said President Harry Truman, "get out of the kitchen."
Don't expect Santorum to do so: he's a heat-seeking missile. Word in New York is that he's already put out feelers to a major GOP donor about a possible presidential bid. Some close friends advise him to take his time, but that's never been Santorum's style. If he wins what could be a tough re-election campaign—perhaps against Pennsylvania's Democratic governor, Ed Rendell, or Bob Casey Jr., the pro-life state treasurer—Santorum may head straight for the hottest place of all: a race for the Republican nomination.