Cover story -- Santorum
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Issue Date:  September 2, 2005

The Pennsylvania provocateur

Rick Santorum divides, but can he conquer?

West Chester, Pa.

Sen. Rick Santorum spoke from a lectern, separated from the audience by rope lines, strategically placed bookshelves, a few local police, and the watchful eye of his small entourage. The two-term senator was there to promote his newly released book, It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good (ISI Books, 2005).

The 200 or so Pennsylvanians who ventured to the Chester County Book & Music Company on a stifling August night listened politely to Santorum, who, as chairman of the Republican Conference, is the third-ranking member of the U.S. Senate. Most were supporters, though there was a smattering of “Kick Rick Out in 2006” T-shirts inside the room and several dozen more at the Democratic Party-organized protest on the sidewalk in front of the strip mall where the event was held.

Santorum, 47 but looking a decade younger, talked schools.

“Who does public education have a duty to?” he asked.

“In some schools, hopefully not many, the educators see their duty as to the institution itself, to preserve the institution itself, to make the institution better. Some see it as duty to the students: The role of teachers and the role of administrators is to serve the student who is there in the school.

“I think both are wrong. I think the duty of the schools is to parents because parents have responsibility to educate their children.”

Santorum’s tone is harsher in It Takes a Family. “For social visionaries, the idea of shaping and molding children not for the children’s sake or the sake of their families but for the needs of the government and the larger community has been almost irresistible.”

It seemed a critique more fitting for a Heritage Foundation seminar than a West Goshen Shopping Center book signing. Here in West Chester more than 80 percent of the local middle school students are deemed advanced or proficient in math, reading and writing. There’s an old-fashioned approach to discipline. “The administration and faculty believe that our students are responsible for their behavior,” according to the Stetson Middle School Web site. “Our students must also realize that there are consequences for their behavior.” A no-gum-chewing rule is strictly enforced.

Had Santorum missed his mark?

No, says Katie Buonanno, a 20-something Santorum fan holding two autographed copies of It Takes a Family. “To me he’s a leader because he talks about everyday issues and what people are trying to deal with in their everyday lives. The family has been under siege for the past however many years. And he’s saying, ‘No, the family should be in the forefront,’ and I agree with that wholeheartedly.”

Buonanno is pleasant, articulate and aware that the traditional views she espouses are viewed by some as intolerant. “It’s not that you’re alienating anyone else,” she says, “but the family is too important to America to be ignored or to be pushed down.”

Across the large room, John and Stephanie Madson are flipping through a children’s book with their daughter, 6-year-old Mattie. Both teach science, he at the University of Delaware, she at Kennett Square High School. John wears an anti-Santorum T-shirt, while Stephanie sports a “Kick Rick Out” bumper sticker around her waist.

Santorum’s view of schools, of the respective roles of parents, teachers and administrators, says Stephanie, “is not grounded in reality.” There is constant contact and communication between teachers and parents, she says of the school where she teaches, but to always place parental priorities at the forefront is both impractical and undesirable.

Stephanie, one of 12 children, bristles at Santorum’s traditional view of family. One of her sisters is a single mother, another is half of a lesbian couple that just adopted a child. “We were taught that it is about the foundation of love that you have, that it doesn’t matter what color it is, what shape it takes, as long as you provide that environment for children,” says Stephanie.

Both Buonanno and the Madsons are churchgoing Catholics, solid citizens. But they have fundamental disagreements about serious questions. And Rick Santorum, a senator facing what political experts expect to be the toughest re-election fight in the country in 2008, personifies those differences.

It’s a role he seems to relish.

Common ground

Santorum’s targets, enumerated in It Takes a Family, are the “bigs,” the “elites” and the “village elders” -- the liberal intelligencia that, in his view, control the media, academia, the judiciary, the culture -- against the “common sense” of the people. The book’s title is, of course, a play on Hillary’s Clinton’s It Takes a Village.

“When it comes to children and family, there are opportunities to find common ground,” Santorum writes, “as long as we can find a way to avoid the polarization that we too often find ourselves stumbling into.” Over dinner, just prior to the book-signing event, he tells me the same thing. “I think this book is an attempt to find common ground.”

That might come as a surprise to the village elders. Rather than stumbling into polarization, Santorum leaps headfirst into the fray.

According to It Takes a Family, liberals have a view of the “common man” that “borders on disdain,” they support “radical feminism’s misogynistic crusade to make working outside the home the only mark of social value and self-respect,” define liberty as “the freedom to do whatever you desire, as long as nobody gets hurt,” and support welfare policies that are “all about transferring income to individuals in such a way that their dependence on government is increased and their dependence on family decreased.”

The left, he tells me, doesn’t believe in the “common good.” Instead, “they believe there is no absolute truth, whatever suits your needs is good. So the idea of the common good to the real left is anathema.” He continued, “It’s diversity that counts [to them]. And since there’s no truth, there is no real good.”

Santorum, a lawyer with an MBA, the second of three children born to two Veterans Administration employees, and the Catholic homeschooling father of six, writes: “Liberal social policy has never put an emphasis on the family because the village elders, frankly, don’t believe in the importance of strong, traditional families.”

So much for common ground?

Perhaps not.

In It Takes a Family, Santorum tells me, he is “as critical of the hard left as I am of the hard right.” The sheer volume of his attacks against liberals in the book belies that contention, yet Santorum has a point. While suspect of government, Santorum’s no libertarian. As befitting a senator from the Northeast, he supports a range of domestic programs -- Community Development Block Grants, a $5 billion annual public housing revitalization program, the $286.4 billion pork-laden highway bill, tax credits for low-income homebuyers -- that buttress his contention that he is not antigovernment.

He’s the prime Senate sponsor of the president’s Faith-Based Initiatives, designed to provide church-affiliated nonprofits with funds to combat a broad swath of social ills. He promotes the Senate Republicans’ “Poverty Alleviation Agenda.”

While the reviews and talk shows focus on Santorum’s traditional view of marriage, family and his opposition to abortion, much of It Takes a Family actually focuses on the poor, a subject, Santorum is quick to point out, not usually associated with conservative Republicans. As chair of the House committee that drafted 1996’s welfare legislation, Santorum has thought about poverty and government’s response to it for more than a decade.

Ultimately, according to It Takes a Family, virtue is the antidote to both the economic poverty of the poor and the cultural poverty affecting society in general. Government can’t produce morality, but it can hinder it; likewise, government programs aimed at helping the impoverished can create virtue-stifling dependency or, if done properly, a vital leg up to a better life where virtue can flourish.

To Santorum, there is no line between cultural and economic issues. All should be viewed through the prism of the common good, the foundation of which, he says, is society’s most vulnerable and important institution, the family. But the family has many enemies: the “bigs,” the “elites,” the “village elders” who seek to undermine it at nearly every turn in pursuit of a neototalitarian ethos that makes individual autonomy the greatest good. There are many societal and political touchstones along the route -- public education, welfare policy, no-fault divorce, home-delivered Internet porn and MTV -- but at the core of this radical individualism, this scourge, says Santorum, is the right to privacy,a cancer that is eating away at the constitution of the United States.”

The right to privacy

Between hurried bites of his Caesar salad prior to the book signing, Santorum reaches for a copy of It Takes a Family. He thumbs through it, reaches Page 53, and reads: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

They are the words of Anthony Kennedy, a Reagan administration Supreme Court appointee, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the 1992 case that largely affirmed the court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.

To Santorum, the words are a declaration of culture war.

“What does that mean?” he asks. There’s passion in his voice, even after round-the-clock It Takes a Family promotion events. He answers the question: “I have the right to define the world around me. It’s a selfish view of freedom. That is the liberal definition of freedom.”

He continues, “It is the definition that allows abortion, the definition that puts self in front of the interest of others. It allows you to define the laws according to your own value structure. This person has no responsibility to anyone or anything.”

He writes in It Takes a Family: “The problem with what the Supreme Court wrote … is that you cannot build a community that is healthy for families and individuals if you understand society only as an unconnected group of individuals, each pursuing his own idiosyncratic vision of his self-centered good.”

Santorum, who pushed the ban on partial-birth abortion through the Senate, traces the slippery-slope of “no-fault freedom” back to 1965. In Griswold v. Connecticut the Supreme Court first enumerated a right to privacy in overturning a state law prohibiting the use of contraceptives and birth control counseling, even to married couples. Eight years later, in Roe v. Wade, the court applied Griswold’s reasoning to abortion, holding that “the right to privacy” nullified state antiabortion statutes.

The direct result of Griswold, that drug stores could sell and couples could legally purchase contraceptives, hardly seems controversial today. But it begs a fundamental question: Should states be able to ban practices, such as the sale of contraceptives, that society sees as part of a personal sphere beyond government’s reach?

“Yes,” Santorum tells me without hesitation, “if that’s what the collective morality of the people in the community dictates. There’s nothing in the Constitution to prohibit what the people want to do.”

Santorum says that had he sat in the Connecticut legislature at the time he would have opposed the law. “Not everything that is immoral should be illegal,” he says. In his view, “it’s not the role of the state to make [contraceptive use] an illicit activity.”

But that’s not the point, he continues.

“The Constitution isn’t made to make sure that the people get it right all the time. Legislatures do stupid things. Here’s the difference: When the legislature makes a mistake the people vote them out and [can] change the law. Or in an election down the road, when it becomes obvious that this is a bad law, they change it.”

But, he continues, “when a court doesn’t like a bad law it has to find a new right.” In Griswold that right was “privacy,” a notion that has changed “the entire landscape of America.”

“It’s not the role of the court to change bad laws. It’s the role of the court to make sure there is a level playing field so that bad laws can be changed over time.”

The field is far from level today, says Santorum. Instead, it is balanced against “common sense,” counter to the founding fathers’ vision of America, and increasingly prepared to sanction aberrant behavior.


Santorum is the Senate’s leading proponent of a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. It’s an institution, he says, in immediate peril.

“I believe this to my core,” Santorum tells me, leaving little doubt that he does, “that John Kerry and those on the left are waiting for the court to do their dirty deed. They can’t come out against traditional marriage. ... They know that is political suicide.” Instead, he says, they plan to “simply sit back and let the courts do it because the courts have been doing it.

“And that’s the reason,” he continues, “they are so passionate about having liberal activist judges on the court.”

He offers prospective proof of liberal insincerity: “I assure you once the court finds … that the equal protection clause of the Constitution requires same-sex couples to be treated the same as heterosexuals in marriage, you won’t see a rush” from the left to overturn the decision. “ ‘How can we take this right away from people? It’s been given to them. It’s in the Constitution. And so we have to abide by what’s in the Constitution.’ That’s what they’ll say.”

He makes the case in It Takes a Family. “Same sex marriage is really ‘liberal marriage.’ That is, the ‘right’ of homosexuals to ‘marry’ one another is a logical result of what must happen to the definition of marriage if we view society as composed of nothing but abstract, autonomous individuals, rather than of men and women with their given natures.”

Santorum’s defense of traditional marriage -- and the rhetoric he employs to make the case -- make him a leading target of gay activists. Commenting to a reporter on the 2003 Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down Texas’ anti-sodomy statute, Santorum said: “And if the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything.”

The resulting firestorm didn’t deter Santorum. He was simply making the point, he writes, that the reasoning of Griswold logically leads to Roe, which leads to Lawrence, a situation where the private behavior of consenting adults is of no concern to government.

Which leads where? “If consent is now the only standard to have your sexual behavior protected by the Constitution, then how can the court prohibit any consensual sexual behavior among two, three or more people?”

It goes back to Santorum’s view of conservatism and liberalism, where we started the conversation before the Caesar salad arrived.

“The basis of conservatism is to take traditions and take what’s being inherited from the previous generation and to maintain those traditions and make changes, when necessary, gradually, slowly and within the context of the values of the society.” By contrast, says Santorum, “liberalism in America has been an attempt to fundamentally restructure and reorder traditional American society with a worldview which is not shared by a vast majority of Americans.”

If privacy is the “cancer,” and abortion its fruit, then marriage is the keystone. Santorum backs a $1.5 billion Bush administration initiative to encourage low-income single parents to marry their partners. He supports state initiatives requiring couples to undergo counseling prior to divorce. (“The marriage contract should be at least as difficult to break as a contract for chicken feed.”)

Further, he writes, “all our social service programs, ranging from Head Start to hospital maternity wards, also need to be retooled so that the professional staff is trained in how to talk to clients about the value of marriage and the services that are available in the community to help couples interested in exploring marriage.”

It takes a family

It Takes a Family reads, like many Washington books, as if written by committee. The reader is told at one point that the 1996 welfare reform act was an “unqualified success,” at another that “welfare reform also had its failures.” Santorum credits Ronald Reagan with signing legislation to enact the Earned Income Tax Credit, actually a Nixon-era program that bolsters the wages for the working poor.

There are unresolved contradictions: Mothers should consider staying home with their young children rather than work outside the home, while the Santorum-sponsored 1996 welfare bill requires single moms on public assistance to get a job.

We are introduced to the Bourque family of Germantown, Md., and told over several pages, with considerable bathos, of their flight to the exurbs as a result of the gang activity in their once family-oriented neighborhood. Contacted by NCR, Mr. Bourque confirmed the details of the account, but acknowledged that he’d never met or talked to Santorum. (In the preface, Santorum acknowledges the contributions of Jeff Rosenberg who interviewed “many of the people you will meet in this book and [wrote] many of the chapter first drafts.”)

Santorum claims that “Senate Democratic leaders decided to do something that had not been done in the 214-year history of our republic: filibuster judicial nominations.” In fact, Republicans filibustered Abe Fortas, Lyndon Johnson’s choice for chief justice. And senators of both parties, Santorum includes, have blackballed judicial nominees of the other party with maneuvers that had the same, though far less public result, as a filibuster.

Moreover, much of what Santorum says in promoting the book, is riff, lines tested over 15 years in Congress and a grueling series of back-to-back-to-back interviews designed to push It Takes a Family up the bestseller list. He’s got his story and he’s sticking to it, whether he’s telling it, as he has during this book promotion tour, to Katie Couric on the “Today Show,” Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show,” irreverent radio host Don Imus, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, NPR’s “Morning Edition,” the National Catholic Reporter, or the dozens upon dozens of other media outlets that want a piece of the provocateur from Pennsylvania.

He doesn’t give an inch. No regrets, few shades of gray. But by becoming the voice of public morality, of virtue, Santorum has set a high standard. Politicians generally try to manage expectations.

Santorum raises them.

Casey versus Santorum

Pennsylvania Democrats are poised to nominate State Treasurer Robert Casey to challenge Santorum. Casey, the son of a late, beloved, pro-life three-term governor (he of Planned Parenthood v. Casey), and a statewide election victor in his own right, presents a formidable, some say unstoppable, challenge to Santorum. In his 2004 race for treasurer, Casey, a two-term state auditor general, won more votes than any previous candidate in the history of Pennsylvania.

The Catholic father of four daughters, a graduate of Holy Cross College and The Catholic University of America law school, Casey is antiabortion, pro-labor, pro-gun, pro-death penalty and pro-government in a culturally conservative state that twice voted for Bill Clinton, supported Al Gore, and backed John Kerry.

The Casey strategy is transparent, says Al Neri, editor of The Insider, a newsletter on Pennsylvania politics. “The Democrats believe they can nominate Casey and liberal Democrats will still vote for Casey in the general election while conservative [pro-life Democrats] who might have strayed over in the past will stay with the Democrats.”

To some degree, at this stage of the campaign, Santorum is shadowboxing with a ghost. “Even the experts who take these polls are saying I’m running against a name. I’m not running against an individual at this point, and once the campaign begins I think the numbers will change,” says Santorum.

In early polls, Casey leads Santorum by anywhere from 7 to 12 percentage points. Casey, who faces minimal opposition from other Democrats, has been largely silent since he became the presumptive nominee.

Santorum has been anything but silent.

Over the last several months, Santorum visited Terri Schiavo’s parents at the hospice where she would eventually die, tussled with Sens. Edward Kennedy and John Kerry over his characterization of the clergy sex abuse scandal, and posed for a New York Times Magazine cover picture with hands clasped like an eager first communicant.

Back in Pennsylvania, home to one of the country’s largest antiabortion constituencies (including a substantial number of pro-life Democrats), Santorum faces criticism from his conservative base. In 2004, Santorum backed Arlen Specter, his moderate-to-liberal Republican Senate colleague, in a primary against Rep. Pat Toomey, a strong antiabortion candidate. The pro-choice Specter squeaked out a 2 percentage point victory made possible, say Santorum’s critics, by the active support of the White House and Santorum.

Santorum makes no apologies.

“We had a 51-49 majority in the Senate when Sen. Specter was up for election, a precarious majority,” he explains. “I felt that holding the majority was important for the causes I believe in.”

Meanwhile, he’s dogged by questions about the education of his children, some of whom were enrolled in a Pennsylvania “cyberschool,” though Santorum and his wife and six children live in Leesburg, Va. The Pennsylvania school district where Santorum maintains his official residence -- he owns a two-bedroom house in Penn Hills, Pa. – paid between $34,000 and $67,000 to the state to fund their online education. In late 2004, after a public uproar over the family’s use of the program, Santorum withdrew the kids from it.

Santorum says the attacks were politically motivated (a leading local Democrat is chairman of the Penn Hills school board) and that he pays property taxes that entitled his family to make use of the program. Still, his use of Pennsylvania tax dollars to pay for the education of his out-of-state children may cost him more in the next election than the national controversies that make him a lightening rod.

And then there’s It Takes a Family.

“I don’t think the book helps him get re-elected to the Senate,” says Neri, though it could help shore up his conservative base when he “inevitably has to take some more centrist positions in the general election.”

To others, the book does read like a campaign tract, but for an entirely different sort of race, one focused on the culturally conservative Republican primary voters who could prove pivotal in the party’s 2008 presidential primaries.

The senator from an idea

Following George W. Bush’s 2004 victory, there was considerable talk in conservative circles of a Santorum 2008 presidential bid. Today, Santorum downplays the speculation, saying that familial and senatorial obligations preclude him from spending the time in Iowa and New Hampshire that would be necessary to launch a serious bid. (He doesn’t, however, rule out some unforeseen circumstances that might lead him to alter his calculation.)

Like Ted Kennedy (traditional liberalism), Hillary Clinton (restoration), and John McCain (Teddy Roosevelt-style Republicanism), Santorum represents more than the state that sent him to the Senate. He’s a senator from an idea, a leader with a national constituency.

In mid-August, It Takes a Family reached number 13 on The New York Times bestseller list.

“To us, he’s the preeminent Catholic politician in America,” says Austin Ruse, president of the Culture of Life Foundation, a Washington-based pro-life group. The “us” Ruse refers to are conservative Catholics, loyal to the magisterium, to this pope and his predecessor. “He’s a living, breathing, daily communicant who’s in the Senate leadership so all of us know that the things that we care about are discussed at the highest levels of the U.S. government,” says Ruse.

Some see that as a political liability in the Keystone State.

“He has got to stop being the senator from the cultural right and be the senator from Pennsylvania,” Franklin and Marshall College political scientist Terry Madonna recently told the Pittsburg Post-Gazette.


But Neri and others point out that in 15 years in public life, in three congressional races and two bruising senatorial contests, Santorum has never lost an election. “Santorum’s supporters will tell you that one of Rick’s strengths is that he always speaks his mind,” says Neri.

Whether that strength morphs into an Achilles heel is something the voters of Pennsylvania will decide in 14 months.

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, September 2, 2005

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