The Real Meaning of Santorum

By Lucas Grindley

Originally published on Advocate.com April 09 2012 2:00 AM ET

For months before the Iowa caucus in early January, MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow had dismissed former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania Rick Santorum as the one GOP presidential candidate who would never experience 15 minutes of glory as the front-runner. The leader status had already been conferred upon every passing non-Romney fad from Donald Trump to Michele Bachmann to Rick Perry to Herman Cain. But “front-runner Rick Santorum” was too absurd a notion to contemplate. Then the Iowa result was a virtual tie. Two weeks after the caucus, Santorum was declared the winner in that state by 34 votes. 

In a wave of spending that led to Romney accounting for 61% of all ads during the primary season’s first eight contests, according to a count by Kantar Media, his campaign regained the lead after back-to-back wins in Florida and Nevada. Once again the former Massachusetts governor appeared to be a lock for the nomination until Santorum shocked the political establishment by winning all three races February 7 in Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri. MSNBC hadn’t even staffed the night with live coverage.

“Shhh! Don’t interrupt the Republicans. Don’t make a sound,” Maddow joked days later in a mocking whisper. “They’re about to nominate Rick Santorum! Don’t move a muscle!”

Maddow, like many on the left, saw Santorum as a weak opponent against President Obama. In theory, Santorum has so remote a chance of even winning the Republican nomination for president that Markos Moulitsas called on the millions of liberals who read his influential website, Daily Kos, to vote for the antigay ex-senator. He declared the campaign to cause mayhem in open primaries “Operation Hilarity.” A vote for Santorum, Moulitsas calculated, actually meant more time for Republican infighting, and for the candidates to beat up Mitt Romney, the presumed real front runner. “I mean, Rick Santorum? Really? The Republicans have offered up this big, slow, juicy softball,” Moulitsas wrote gleefully. “Let’s have fun whacking the heck out of it.”

Moulitsas wasn’t alone in his evaluation of Santorum. Exit polls in Michigan found a larger than usual percentage of voters were Democrats, and they broke overwhelmingly for Santorum, 53%, compared with 18% for Romney. Santorum lost the popular vote so narrowly that he took half the delegates in the state where Romney was born and raised and where his father had been governor. No one predicted that the man who once compared gay sex to bestiality and pedophilia, who had lost reelection to the U.S. Senate by 18 points in 2006, would be striking fear in the monied, juggernaut Romney campaign. Many LGBT activists still doubt Santorum could ever beat Romney. What is most shocking to them aren’t his chances of winning the nomination, it’s that he can win anything at all.

“You could knock me over with a drop of Santorum. I am completely blown away by this,” says Dan Savage, the mastermind of the Google-bomb that forever redefined Rick’s last name. Like everyone else, Savage had at first dismissed Santorum’s triumph in Iowa as a chance for more moderate voters in other states to prove his views are big political losers. Instead, Santorum kept winning. His success, and by extension the success of the religious prism through which he views the world, is due to either divine intervention, dumb luck as the last candidate to get his surge, or real political support—or all three, depending on who you ask. “Whatever it is, it’s terrifying,” Savage now says.

“Oh, my God, it should absolutely scare people,” agrees Joe Solmonese, outgoing president of the Human Rights Campaign. The specter of a Santorum vice presidency was first raised by the HRC in an email to supporters after Iowa. At that time, not even the most imaginative of activists foresaw the nearly 2 million votes Santorum had pocketed by the Super Tuesday primaries, when he added Oklahoma, Tennessee, and North Dakota to his total. Solmonese, who is now a cochair of the Obama reelection campaign, has since grown only more worried by Santorum and what his success already means.

“He absolutely represents people,” Solmonese says. “The problem with him is, he is true to his convictions. He means what he says, and that should give us reason to be deeply concerned and afraid about the prospect of Rick Santorum.”

[Photo Illustration by Scott McPherson]

 

Sincerity matters in politics. When politicians such as Democratic New York governor Andrew Cuomo step out in favor of marriage equality, or even when Republican state lawmakers buck their party to do the same, the leadership they demonstrate impresses voters on both sides. Or so goes the argument made privately by pro-marriage conservatives in triumphant lobbying efforts from New York to Washington State. What those lobbyists are less eager to point out is that while being pro-marriage is usually a net positive in general elections, it depends on the state. Certainly, it’s not helpful in Republican primaries.

A high-level Republican strategist with experience in big campaigns sees Santorum winning leadership points in the inverse. The self-proclaimed “courageous conservative” has a long and monotonous record on social issues, including an opposition to LGBT rights, that stands in contrast to Romney, about whose fuzzy political views rank-and-file voters remain unsure. In a race in search of the anti-Romney, the antigay views of Santorum are a sign of his authenticity and consistency. Now he’s built a campaign on that reputation, and it’s proved a solid foundation in Republican primaries—and instead of offending voters, it makes many see Santorum as truthful.

No one believes the race is being decided only on LGBT rights issues. But that is what’s so worrisome. Santorum’s views have not disqualified him as politically untenable. A look at his public statements shows that Santorum goes further than any Republican contender in campaigning against LGBT people. All of it fits under a banner of “religious freedom” that the rest of the party is now scrambling to pick up and claim as its own. 

The candidate’s wife, Karen Santorum, was asked in February by commentator Glenn Beck why she agreed to put their family under the microscope of a presidential campaign. The mother of seven described a “mission” that her husband is on “to make the culture a better culture, more pleasing to God.”

Santorum twice signed pledges that, if elected, he would ban same-sex marriage via an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. One of those pledges, from the Iowa group Family Leader, was deemed too extreme by Romney, who refused to sign.

While campaigning in South Carolina, Santorum bragged that he’s one of the original authors of the Federal Marriage Amendment. He’s also the only candidate to claim that amending the Constitution would retroactively invalidate marriages of same-sex couples. He’s the only one to say the amendment would simultaneously bar same-sex couples from adopting. (Although, he’s never said whether anything happens retroactively to separate children from their adoptive mothers and fathers.)

By contrast, when Romney explains why he opposes adoption by same-sex couples, he even avoids using the word “gay.” Twice during a debate in Arizona, Romney highlighted an incident in 2006 when, as governor of Massachusetts, he supported the Catholic Church even as it failed in attempts to get a legal exemption that would let it discriminate against same-sex couples who wanted to adopt.

Santorum’s explanation goes many steps beyond the bounds of the typical “religious freedom” arguments. During a campaign stop at the Community Christian Academy in Stuart, Fla., a mother asked why her gay son doesn’t deserve the same rights as Santorum. His answer divulged the religious doctrine underlying his belief system. It pops up even when explaining why he opposes what the right calls “Obamacare,” the president’s landmark health care law, which Santorum claims created government-issued rights that could one day just as easily be taken away.

“Everyone in America should have rights that are endowed to them by the Creator, those are unalienable rights. And your son, just like everyone else here, has those unalienable rights,” Santorum said, according to The Palm Beach Post, before explaining the difference between God-given rights and government-given rights.

“There are certain things that government does that gives people privileges in order to promote activity that are healthy for society and are best for society,” he said. “And those things we promote would give people advantages or benefits, government benefits, because we think that is healthy activity.”

In Rick Santorum’s view of the world, God has not given gay, bisexual, or transgender people any rights. Instead, Obama and the liberal Democrats have extended those rights, in violation of both God’s law and the religious beliefs of people like Santorum. In Santorum’s mind, Obama and the Democrats have played God. And that’s why they shouldn’t be reelected. It’s why they are to blame for the downfall of society.

Unlike Romney, Santorum has said he would seek to reinstate the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. His reason, that gays serving openly is a kind of “social experimentation,” underscores the vantage point from which he views American culture.

“How close do you think we are to losing the republic?” Glenn Beck casually asked Karen Santorum during that same interview on his Internet television show.

“Oh, it’s such a concern,” she said. “I just really believe so strongly, and this is why we are making the sacrifice we are as a family…. Because I do believe if the president is elected again, I do believe we are going to lose our nation as we know it.”

This mix of faith and fear first earned attention for the Santorum campaign, which declined to comment for this article, in Iowa from a consolidation of evangelical voters who helped upset straw-poll winner Michele Bachmann. A sign of things to come was his first big endorsement, from Family Leader president and CEO Bob Vander Plaats, the architect of a successful effort to unseat three state judges who had ruled in favor of marriage equality.

In the lead-up to the South Carolina primary, where former House speaker Newt Gingrich pulled off a surprise win, it was Santorum who was endorsed by a gathering of more than 150 major evangelical leaders. All of them traveled to Texas for a much-hyped confab where they gave speeches and endured several rounds of voting as they decided whether it would be Santorum, Gingrich, or Rick Perry who was their best chance of beating both Romney and Obama.

The Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins said afterward that Santorum “consistently articulated the issues that are of concern” to social conservatives and praised him for a “record of stability.” Evangelical Christians regularly say their faith is under attack, and so they prefer someone trusted to stick by them and fight.

The National Organization for Marriage’s former chairman, Maggie Gallagher, campaigned alongside Santorum in Ohio, where he lost so narrowly to Romney that much of the media declared it a political tie. Gallagher now runs a group whose purpose it is to argue that religious Americans need defending. NOM’s pledge, which Santorum and Romney both signed, commits these potential world leaders to launching a “presidential commission on religious liberty.” The commission would “investigate and document reports of Americans who have been harassed or threatened” for supporting marriage bans. The commission might even “propose new protections.”

If there is a war on religion, and even if there isn’t, then Santorum is one side’s pick to marshal a counteroffensive. An attack on Santorum is an attack on all Christians, or so Christian conservatives have spun it. Santorum has worn his battle scars proudly because each addition rallies a religious conservative base to his side. The glitter-bombings that followed Santorum before he got his Secret Service detail were a visual representation of LGBT disapproval, but they also fed a narrative that antigay leaders see as helpful.

“The left, which thought it had buried Santorum years ago, is going after him with a hatred unmatched,” said Gallagher in her endorsement. “They hate him with that special ire reserved for a man’s virtues, not his vices.”

Coincidence or not, the trio of wins that propelled Santorum back into the media spotlight came moments after a great victory for LGBT rights made national headlines. As the candidate and his supporters celebrated in Minnesota, so did gays and lesbians at rallies all over California in reaction to a federal appeals court ruling that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional. News reports noted that Washington, Maryland, and New Jersey were all on the verge on votes to legalize same-sex marriage. It wasn’t long before Santorum headed to Washington State, arriving the very same day marriage equality was signed into law by Gov. Christine Gregoire.

“Thank you for standing strong with us and for the values that made this country great,” he said to a crowd in Tacoma, shouting over a chorus of protesters angry that he was marring what was supposed to be a momentous day for LGBT rights. “I think it’s really important for you to understand what this radical element represents,” he said of the protesters, “because what they represent is true intolerance.”

The crowd roared in response. And then Santorum broadened the picture while painting himself and his followers as the victim.

“That’s what the Ninth Circuit said when they handed down the decision striking down Proposition 8. What they said was that anybody who disagreed with them were irrational, and that the only reason they could possibly disagree was if they were a hater or a bigot. I got to tell you, I don’t agree with these people, but I respect them. I respect their opportunity to be able to have a different point of view. And I don’t think that they’re a hater or a bigot because they disagree with me.”

Even if LGBT rights activists don’t see the fight as a war on religion, they do have ballot fights on their hands in Maine, North Carolina, and Minnesota. And opponents want to add repeals of marriage equality laws to general election ballots in Washington and Maryland. LGBT rights wins won’t come from attacks on Santorum or his values, though. Not if you ask Richard Carlbom, the campaign manager for Minnesotans United for All Families. Carlbom is fighting for Minnesota to be the second state to defeat an antigay constitutional amendment.

“We are the ones who are defining this as a religious, moral issue for voters,” he says of the pro-LGBT strategy in Minnesota. In March, Edina Community Lutheran Church became the 40th faith-based partner to join the coalition. Carlbom points to his stable of religious supporters as his own argument for religious freedom. “Our goal isn’t to win them over,” he says of Santorum supporters. “Our goal is making sure the people of Minnesota know that the way mainline denominations are defining marriage is love and commitment.”

Religious leaders are credited almost everywhere with making a difference in fights for marriage. HRC praised the testimony of clergy, for example, as instrumental in passing marriage equality in Maryland. Carlbom points out that in the Minnesota primary, Santorum won 21,000 votes in a state with millions of voters. He and other activists, while alarmed that anyone still sides with a staunchly antigay candidate, are confident in the fairness of the larger pool of Americans.

If Santorum were to be nominated atop the GOP ticket or as vice president, his presence would continue shifting debate into social issues. Some Republicans worry that it distracts from their message on the economy and jobs, not only at the presidential level but also in down-ballot races.
Solmonese says Santorum’s “influence over the race to date has already done significant damage.” Romney is a calculating politician who sees what Santorum accomplished and has become more “mindful,” Solmonese says, of Santorum’s issues and voters, perhaps taking a harder line than he would have if allowed to focus only on wooing independents.

Jimmy LaSalvia, executive director for the gay conservative group GOProud, says a Santorum nomination would be “disastrous” for his party. “If he is the nominee,” LaSalvia predicts with alarm, “the Obama-Santorum outcome will make Reagan-Mondale look like a squeaker.” Walter Mondale, the former Democratic vice president, was a strong liberal who overcame a close primary fight only to lose 49 of 50 states in the 1984 election. For LaSalvia, who is a loyal Republican and supports Romney, it’s almost heretical to compare a Republican to a left-winger such as Mondale. But he doesn’t mince words except when asked whether GOProud could endorse a ticket that included Santorum’s name. “It would be a referendum,” he says, “on the most outdated and wrong beliefs of some conservatives.”