Americans are "looking for a president who believes in them," Rick Santorum said on the first day of his campaign for the Republican nomination for president, and he's repeated it many times since.
He did, after all, serve 16 years in Congress, in both the House and the Senate. He?s worked at a think tank (one of my faves, the Ethics and Public Policy Center). But in his sweater vests (which have taken on a Twitter account of their own), he speaks about policies that empower working families and don?t leave the poor out in the cold, or perpetually dependent on an unsustainable state. He points to the kind of populist style that resonates with people.
And while the most radical activists for certain social issues love to paint him as harsh, there?s compassion in his words and views. As anyone who has ever made the mistake of Googling his name knows, Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, has been caricatured as something of a right-wing bogeyman for decades, but his message is not a harsh one. Take, for instance, his public profession of faith. "We want leaders who understand that faith is essential to the sustenance of democracy," he told me earlier this year, "that faith is an agent for good, that it protects the weak and defenseless, that it motives people to confront injustice."
Leaders, in other words, who do not force religious charities to choose between their principles and receiving the government funding they need to stay in business, leaders who don?t compel taxpayer funding of abortion and leaders who respect the conscience rights of voters.
New Yorkers gathered at the Church of the Holy Innocents on that church's namesake feast day to pray for the conversion of the hearts of political leaders; for young, scared mothers to have the courage to seek out the necessary help to bring their children into the world and provide for them; for the healing of those who have been hurt by abortion; and for the lives of the unborn. This isn?t a militant message, but a loving one, even as its advocates feel that their mission has become increasingly urgent.
This is in large part the message that Santorum and his family carry with them. With his eldest daughter taking time off from college to work on the campaign, and his youngest daughter Bella?s determination to live despite being diagnosed "incompatible with life" more than three years ago as a constant source of inspiration, his is a message about happiness, restoration and healing in our lives and our culture -- about the fullness of freedom and its preservation.
Santorum has a hard-won wisdom that only shows up in the long view. You can see snatches of it during the Republican primary debates, when he schools Ron Paul on foreign policy and America's obligations to its allies and its own self-defense. Santorum projects a self-confidence that is not paternalistic, but straightforward and respectful. He has the air of authority that comes with experience, and the refreshing authenticity of a guy who is a happy father and husband, a guy who clearly misses his family while on the long campaign trail.
Even while Santorum is ridiculed by the left for being a culture warrior, my own Facebook page experienced some fireworks the other day as he was blasted as a "pro-life fraud" for some endorsements he's made over the years, the kind one can agree or disagree with but which also suggest some appreciation for forming alliances in an imperfect world -- in other words, for governing.
His is the confidence of a man for whom experience has helped generate optimism, the realistic sort that comes with knowledge of something greater than oneself and one?s campaign, even one?s exceptional nation. As a person who has worked with him puts it: "He is a man who simply loves his work, without an ounce of cynicism. And I?ve never heard him say 'no' to a request, schedule permitting. If it can be done, he wants to do it."
We are not the ones we have been waiting for. Nor is Santorum. Which is precisely why he wakes up every day and works, and why Iowa voters see something of what they?d like to see in Washington (again) in him.
(Kathryn Lopez is the editor-at-large of National Review Online (www.nationalreview.com). She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)