The Ticket

Rick Santorum’s mysterious, paradoxical manifesto, ‘It Takes a Family’: Character Sketch

The Ticket

Every presidential race has its mysteries. Who really won the recent low-turnout Maine caucuses--and why are the Republicans having so much trouble counting caucus votes? Did Mitt Romney's dog-on-the-roof Irish setter Seamus actually try to defect to Canada? But the biggest campaign riddle wrapped in an enigma remains, Why does any politician fantasizing about the White House ever put his name on the cover of a book?

Rick Santorum, who should be basking in his sudden star turn as the poll-vaulting anti-Romney, is the latest author to pay a political price for his literary ambitions. Making the rounds of last Sunday morning's talk shows, the former Pennsylvania senator came under fire for his unflattering comments about "radical feminists" in his half-forgotten 2005 book, It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good. On "Meet the Press," host David Gregory challenged Santorum to defend his book's claim, "The radical feminists succeeded in undermining the traditional family and convincing women that professional accomplishments are the key to happiness." Rather than try to justify his implicit critique of women of childbearing years finding fulfillment in the workplace, Santorum vaguely affirmed a woman's right to choose her career and gallantly insisted that "the section was written in large part in cooperation" with his (non-working) wife, Karen.

From this TV exchange, it would be easy to assume that Santorum's book is a political screed filled with short paragraphs, wide margins, angry put-downs of liberals and lots of exclamation points. And, in truth, Santorum's language does get overheated at times: "We now have a generation that has grown up with the belief, inspired by the Sixties' free-love assault on sexual mores, that true love is a feeling, and that it should not be resisted or constrained--rather, its ultimate validation is through sexual relations, without regard to the outdated social convention of marriage." (Unless he was a particularly precocious conservative, Santorum is channeling the opinions of others in his scorn for the Sixties. He was 11 years old at the time of Woodstock).

But what is fascinating about It Takes a Family is that it is far more a densely argued social conservative manifesto than a standard-issue political volume designed to win votes or provide the policy framework for a presidential campaign. Newt Gingrich--the author of 23 books, including memoirs, policy pronouncements and political potboilers--purports to be the conservative intellectual in the Republican presidential race. But Santorum, in his zeal to be taken seriously as a thinker, mobilizes a wide array of social-science research (including some citations from liberals) to buttress his argument that hedonistic individualism is jeopardizing traditional families and their irreplaceable role in raising children. This, of course, is an explosive topic--and it is unlikely that Santorum can win many converts among liberal and moderate skeptics. But it is hard not to be impressed by the energy that Santorum devotes to his argument.

Written on the eve of Santorum's uphill 2006 reelection bid for a third Senate term (he lost by 700,000 votes), It Takes a Family offers an unusual window into the mind of its author. This is not a volume to study in order to decipher Santorum's governing agenda, although it is safe to predict that he would be the most ardent social-conservative president in history. What gives the book value in the middle of a presidential campaign is that it provides lasting clues about the thought processes that Santorum would use to make decisions in the Oval Office. The former senator is both a devout Catholic and a lawyer--and it is easy to see the influence of both intellectual frameworks in It Takes a Family.

"In developing my understanding of social policy," Santorum writes, "I have learned a lot from the tradition of Catholic social thought." Here Santorum is referring to the Catholic concept of "subsidiarity," which he defines as "the principle that all social challenges should be addressed at the level of the smallest social unit possible, preferably the family." This belief structure is compatible with the embrace by constitutional conservatives of the Tenth Amendment and the states rights doctrines that go with it. But it also allows Santorum to discuss innovative family-based and church-based approaches to fighting poverty.

Romney recently compounded his too-wealthy-for-compassion problem when he said, "I'm not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there." In sharp contrast, Santorum wrote, "For our part, conservatives, with respect to the poor, haven't tried hard enough ... The real solution, the conservative solution to the problems of low-income America, is to structure all our programs around the family." These words were written in 2005, granted, when it seemed like America had the financial resources to tackle any problem it chose, from reconstructing Iraq to adding an expensive prescription drug benefit to Medicare. Now that the political discourse is dominated by the $15 trillion national debt, it is hard to imagine that anti-poverty legislation would rank high on any president's agenda.

The other intellectual pillar buttressing Santorum's worldview is his legal education. Sometime, presumably early in his studies at Penn State's Dickinson School of Law, Santorum was introduced to the concept of the slippery slope--and it changed his mental life. In It Takes a Family, Santorum repeatedly warns about the legal consequences flowing from popular Supreme Court decisions. He laments the reasoning behind the 1965 Griswold decision (overturning--yikes!--a Connecticut law that banned the sale of condoms) because it introduced the constitutional zone of privacy that later allowed the Supreme Court to legalize abortion. Santorum even expresses his concern with the precedent set by Loving v. Virginia, the landmark 1967 civil-rights decision that decreed that states could not ban interracial marriages. What troubles Santorum is not the result (ending Jim Crow legislation) but that "16 years later, the IRS ruled that religious groups opposed to interracial marriage could be stripped of their tax-exempt status."

Arguments like this are at the core of Santorum's idiosyncratic mindset. What other 21st century senator, facing an arduous reelection battle in a diverse northern state, would risk criticizing the Supreme Court for eliminating the legal barriers to interracial marriage? What other politician with national ambitions would be so zealous about defending the rights of religious groups to flirt with bigotry? There is something both admirable in Santorum's quest for intellectual consistency and worrisome about the imprudence of some of his judgments.

This gets close to the Santorum paradox. On one level, he is a thoughtful conservative, wearing his erudition on his sleeve, bragging in his book about working with Senate Democrats (even Ted Kennedy and Hillary Clinton) to sponsor legislation that tried to achieve liberal goals through conservative institutions like the church and traditional families. But then, a few pages later, Santorum goes all fire and brimstone as he writes: "Conservatives trust families and the ordinary Americans that are formed by them. Liberals don't. They border on disdain for the common man."

That is an indefensible passage, both inflammatory and untrue. No one in American politics opposes a father and a mother guiding their children through the vicissitudes of life. In similar fashion, it is ludicrous to believe that a political party can thrive for decades while disdaining the common man and average voters. By writing lines like this, Santorum was pandering to the worst excesses of the right wing's liberals-hate-America mythology. It would have been one thing if It Takes a Family were a campaign tract designed to score cheap political points. But Santorum wants to establish his credentials as a Serious Thinker rather than to emulate the prose style of, say, Ann Coulter.

If Santorum defeats Romney on Feb. 28 in the Michigan primary, the former senator in a sweater vest will become the frontrunner for the 2012 Republican nomination. Often ignored and belittled as he persisted in his quixotic quest to appeal to social conservatives before narrowly winning the Iowa caucuses, the under-funded Santorum will have seized the lead without most national Republican voters having taken his full measure.

A careful reading of It Takes a Family compounds the puzzle. Is Santorum an underrated conservative intellectual willing to wrestle with ideas and follow them to surprising conclusions? Or is he a political arsonist who hurls anti-family invective at liberal Democrats and issues jeremiads against gay marriage? Who is Rick Santorum? That's the biggest mystery in presidential politics.

Walter Shapiro, who is covering his ninth presidential campaign, writes the "Character Sketch" column for Yahoo News, examining what we know about the character and personalities of the 2012 candidates. He is also a special correspondent for the New Republic. Follow him on Twitter at @waltershapiroPD.

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