Santorum's Experiment in Truth-Telling

Terry Jeffrey

1/4/2012 12:01:00 AM - Terry Jeffrey

Even though he is a columnist for The Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer often makes shrewd observations about American politics.

On Fox News the night before the Iowa caucuses, however, Krauthammer indulged in a false appeal to common knowledge -- before casually dismissing Rick Santorum as a nonviable presidential candidate

Bill O'Reilly asked: Who is going to win Iowa?

"I'll tell you that it's win, place and show, everybody knows: Romney, Santorum and Ron Paul," Krauthammer responded. "And I'm not sure it will matter either way, because Santorum has a one-in-50 chance of winning the nomination. Paul has zero chance."

As I write this, the Iowa caucuses are still a few hours in the future. I do not know who is going to win, place or show.

But I know this: A month ago, someone looking for a frontrunner in Iowa might have picked former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who hit 33 percent in a CNN poll of likely Iowa caucus-goers -- 13 points ahead of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and 16 ahead of Paul.

Before that, former Godfathers Pizza CEO Herman Cain, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Rep. Michele Bachmann all took turns at the top of the Iowa polls.

Before December, Santorum never topped 7 percent in the state. Why did he emerge?

First, Santorum passed the basic test all candidates face: He is up to the office.

Santorum's knowledge of public policy -- developed over two terms in the U.S. Senate -- is deeper and broader than any other candidate's except, perhaps, Gingrich's. He is clearly qualified to be president -- even if he has never been a community organizer like Barack Obama or a venture capitalist like Mitt Romney.

Secondly, Santorum has done something fairly radical in modern presidential politics: He not only has insisted on saying exactly what he believes, he has turned his heartfelt beliefs into the foundation of a visionary message for the country's future.

Responding to a question at a town hall meeting (broadcast by C-SPAN from Marshalltown, Iowa) on Friday, Santorum used one of his signature issues -- the right to life -- as a launching point to explain his broader vision.

"You have a lot of presidential candidates who will say the words: I believe life begins at conception," Santorum said. "Ladies and gentlemen, I don't believe life begins at conception. I know life begins at conception. It is a biological fact."

"We need someone who is going to go out and be unapologetic in laying out the truth to the American public -- not only on faith, family, life, but on all the issues that we are dealing with," said Santorum.

"This is the most critical time in our country's history, economically, morally, culturally, national security," he said. "And the reason President Obama has divided this country is because he has not told the truth to this country. He hides the ball. He plays games. He pits groups against another. It's all this political chess game, instead of trying to be honest with the American public."

"If you're a leader as a president, you have got to motivate the American public, and the best way to do that is to be truthful, to lay out the problems and say here is the problem that we have and what are we going to do to join together and solve that problem," said Santorum.

"I think one of those common things that we agree on, that we should agree on, are these basic foundational principles of our country, based on the Declaration of Independence," he said.

"If everyone is endowed by God -- not any god, but the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, that God -- with the right to life, then there are certain things that we need to follow through and we need to have in our laws," he said.

"If you believe in the right to liberty, then there are certain things that come with liberty," he said.

"Freedom is not an open checkbook to write whatever check you want, to perform whatever actions you want," Santorum said.

"We cannot long last as a country with people going around living lives that are not responsible," he said. "Freedom comes with the responsibility to do not what you want to do but what you ought to do. That is the freedom our founders gave us.

"If you look at life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, happiness in the vernacular today has a very different meaning than it had at the time of our founders," he said.

"Happiness today is enjoyment, pleasure, what makes you feel good. At the time of our founders, one of the principle definitions was to do the morally right thing," said Santorum. "So, think of what our founders envisioned: The freedom to do the morally right thing. Rights given to us by God to serve him and his will in our lives. That is the moral foundation that is America.

"Now, can we get Americans to agree with that or not?" he asked. "I believe the vast majority of Americans would agree with those foundational principles. Then we say: OK, how do we build upon that?"

"We build a culture of freedom," he said, "but a freedom to do what you should do, not what you want to do."

Santorum's great secret may be that after spending months visiting town after town in Iowa, he takes American voters more seriously than establishment pundits and political reporters.