Back in November, on the heels of the landslide defeat of Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) by Democratic challenger Bob Casey, Jr., I wrote an article recalling the first time I met Santorum. I intended the piece to be a personal recollection, with some analysis of polling data, and concluding with the point that Santorum—despite the crushing margin—should never be underestimated. This is a man capable of surprising victories.
The article was carried by several local and national sources, including the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. I didn’t expect much feedback, figuring I hadn’t said anything notably controversial. Boy, was I wrong.
My email box was flooded with the angriest collection of emails I’ve ever received from any article. Some of the emails were thoughtful, including a dialogue that followed with a Pitt professor. Most, however, were filled with animosity toward Santorum and at me for not appreciating the vituperation against the man. Yes, the emailers were mostly Democrats, but there was a strong contingent of disaffected Republicans.
By the time I got to roughly the 30th email, a Pittsburgher who lectured me, “You don’t understand how much people hate this guy,” I realized I had misread the electorate. So, I began surveying the emailers: What was it about Santorum that triggered such visceral rejection?
I found that some of the opposition was policy related—his conservatism, his unflagging position as the leading voice for life and against abortion in the Senate, his closeness to President Bush’s policies, especially concerning Iraq. Yet, most of the opposition was personal; these people simply didn’t like the guy. The central reason was Santorum’s alleged “hypocrisy”: whether this involved how he schooled his children or that he moved his family from Mt. Lebanon to Washington, which had once been a campaign issue he used to win a congressional seat (and which I had thought he explained adequately). More, the Casey campaign ad that excoriated Santorum for daring to argue that not all moms necessarily needed to go to work, was enormously damaging. “He doesn’t like working moms!” shouted one emailer.
Even now, the dislike appears to not be going away, much like the double-digit deficit Santorum was never able to dent against Casey.
Indeed, a friend last week handed me an op-ed by Reg Henry, a columnist syndicated by Scripps Howard News Service, titled, “Santorum goes into the tank.” Here was another reaction to Santorum that stunned me—placed, ironically, under a cartoon of Richard Nixon, a man who once said, “Always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.”
The writer focused on the recent news that Santorum, like many out-of-office politicians, had joined a think-tank—the respected Ethics and Public Policy Center. The article made fun of Santorum, celebrating that at least he is “off the streets.” The former senator, wrote the columnist, “will be in his element in the think tank, doing his blowfish impersonation of Winston Churchill warning of the gathering storm.” The writer made clear that he feels Rick is no Winston, but advised that the former senator could learn a valuable tip from the late prime minister: “Churchill was also tanked in the alcoholic sense, which could be a good tip to Santorum when the keepers [at the think ‘tank’] bring round the sherry.”
Henry also expressed these sentiments, which hit at the crux of much of the opposition to Santorum:
“The thoughtarium that will house the bounding ex-senator … describes itself on its web site as ‘dedicated to applying the Judeo-Christian moral tradition to critical issues of public policy.’ If this moral tradition includes beating swords into plowshares, Santorum may find himself swimming against the tide, because he is more killer whale than frolicking dolphin. He probably doesn’t have to worry. In many overly piously precincts, the love-thy-neighbor part of the Gospel has been conveniently forgotten. And, indeed, the think tank announced that as a senior fellow Santorum would be establishing and directing a program titled ‘America’s Enemies.’ … No comedian could make up this assignment. It is irony and aptness, it is another proof that there is an Almighty and he has a sense of humor.”
The writer was symptomatic of Santorum’s detractors: It is indeed this absolutism that drives Santorum’s critics wild—and the perception that he pursues such absolutism with a snarl instead of a smile. Liberals, even secular ones, welcome the application of the Christian Gospel to issues like the environment and minimum wage, but when a conservative Republican like Rick Santorum applies those teachings to things like unborn babies … well, that’s a bit overly pious.
That said, the writer nailed the biggest problem Santorum faces: how he is perceived. Personality matters in politics. You can see it in how the public preferred Kennedy over Nixon, Reagan over Carter, and Clinton over Dole.
While my understanding of Santorum has undergone some course readjustments, I stick to my previous estimation: If ever there was a politician who can make a comeback, even from a 19-point defeat, it is Rick Santorum—at least at the national level. First, however, he has some work to do not so much on policy but perception.