The Magazine

A Winning Message?

The neglected substance of the Santorum campaign.

Jan 16, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 17 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Manchester, N.H.

Photo of Rick Santorum

Rick Santorum’s campaign is more sophisticated than it looks. Superficially, it’s a shoestring operation: Just a few days before the New Hampshire primary, he’s perpetually booked into venues that are two sizes too small. He often speaks without a microphone or professional lighting. The advance work is minimal, usually just a couple of lawn signs tacked to the walls and two small posterboard placards that read “Faith, Family & Freedom” and sit on tripods at the front of the room. On good days, there are enough staffers to man a table near the entrance asking voters to sign up for his list, but this job usually exhausts the staff’s available manpower. As in most successful insurgencies, the candidate is the campaign. And Santorum the candidate is quite impressive.

In Iowa, one could say Santorum got lucky catching a wave. But it wasn’t just luck that translated attention into votes. Santorum was selling something different from the other candidates in the field, and once people noticed that, they responded.

For starters, Santorum embraced cultural issues. At a stop in Marshalltown, Iowa, for instance, he didn’t just talk about abortion​—​a topic rarely engaged by any of the other candidates on the stump​—​he did so in the strongest possible terms. “I don’t believe life begins at conception. I know life begins at conception,” he said. Explaining why life should be protected by U.S. law, he said people should ask themselves the following: “Do you as an American believe, as an article of the American civic religion, that we hold these truths to be self evident: All men are created equal?” Because, he said, “We believe that everyone is endowed by God. And not any God, but the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob​—​that God.”

But Santorum pressed more than just social conservatism in Iowa; he proposed a distinctly populist economic agenda. He takes traditional Republican economic goals as a starting point​—​cutting taxes and reducing the size of government. But his plans also have some interesting wrinkles. When it comes to taxes, for instance, Santorum wants to collapse the code to two rates (10 percent and 28 percent) and limit individuals to just five deductions. His list is telling: children, charity, mortgage interest, health care, and retirement savings. It’s a scheme designed, first and foremost, to bolster middle-class families.

When it comes to corporate taxes, Santorum proposes slashing the general rate in half and eliminating taxes on manufacturing entirely. First, Santorum argues that service businesses, like restaurants, florists, or Walmart (to pick the three examples he often uses), can’t move to China. Factories can, so they need special protection.

Furthermore, Santorum argues, manufacturing is special. “In the knowledge-based economy we’re creating a lot of great products,” he says, “but we’re not making them in America. We’re creating​—​and then by creating .  .  . but manufacturing them somewhere else, wealth is accumulated. But it’s not distributed.” This distribution of wealth concerns Santorum because he sees manufacturing jobs as the key to economic mobility​—​and hence family formation​—​in the lower-middle and middle-middle classes. And intact, middle-class families are the key to economic growth and liberty. “You can’t have limited government without strong families,” he’s fond of saying. “You can’t have a successful economy without strong families.”

It’s an interesting bridge, from economic to moral issues, that Santorum constructs. It’s at once populist and values-based. Even when he’s talking about the tax code or economic policy, he finds a way to talk about family life. In Brentwood, New Hampshire, for instance, a voter asked him how he would stop members of Congress from insider trading. Santorum responded that we shouldn’t need a law to prevent legislators from profiting off of nonpublic information, because such behavior is obviously unethical. But because our representatives don’t act ethically and morally, he said, we will have to pass a law constraining them. Then we’ll have to hire people to enforce the law. As a result congressional offices will swell with these new hall monitors. The government will grow. And the entire operation will cost Americans money. 

Then Santorum bridged: “People say, ‘All we need to care about is cutting taxes and cutting government and everything will be fine.’ But if people don’t live good, decent, moral lives, government is going to get bigger. And that’s why I say families and faith are important parts of the foundation of economic limited government.”

It was an elegant formulation; and the audience loved it.

If the ideological sophistication of Santorum’s campaign is under-estimated, so is his personal appeal. On the stump, Santorum typically talks for 8 or 10 minutes and then takes questions for more than an hour. He is relaxed, friendly, and often funny. In Northfield, New Hampshire, for instance, he was asked about his upbringing in Pennsylvania’s coal country. In response, he told the audience about his grandfather, an Italian immigrant who worked in the mines until he was 72 years old. “He was tough,” Santorum said with a smile. “He had scoliosis in his back and was sort of hunched over and was just a big, strong man. Smoked everything, all day long. Pipes, cigars, cigarettes. Had his whiskey in the morning with his coffee​—​he was just a whole different breed of cat.” For a politician who made his name in the Senate as a bulldog, Santorum has learned to play these moments with a nice combination of levity and accessibility.

Which isn’t to say folksiness. Santorum spent much of the last few years working at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, one of Washington’s most impressive think tanks. It shows. When he’s asked questions about Social Security, for example, his answers often wind past the 15-minute mark and include actuarial talk about bend points. It’s a testament to how nimble he is that audiences are willing to follow him on these colloquies.

And on top of everything else, Santorum is rhetorically shrewd. He treated his post-caucus remarks as a national introduction and delivered a strong speech. But as the Washington Examiner’s Tim Carney noted, tucked away in his remarks was a subtle contrast with Mitt Romney.

Where Romney likes to contrast his vision of a “merit society” with Barack Obama’s “entitlement society,” Santorum frames the issue differently. He says that Obama “wants to make [working-class men and women] dependent, rather than valuing their work.” As Carney points out, Romney knocks welfare queens, while Santorum worries that government is hurting the working class: “In both accounts, government is the enemy, but the co-conspirators in Romney’s account are the victims in Santorum’s.”

The machinery of the Santorum campaign is, at best, third-class. But the candidate has proven to be formidable.

Jonathan V. Last is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.

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