The media has unleashed the hounds on Rick Santorum.
He was last seen a step ahead of the braying pack, trying to explain that he hadn’t accused President Barack Obama of being a crypto-Muslim. The former Pennsylvania senator criticized the president’s environmentalism as representative of a “phony theology.” The press snipped the remark out of the context and played it as Santorum donning his finest Grand Inquisitor garb and reading the president of the United States out of the Christian faith.
This followed immediately upon an ill-considered joke by Santorum backer Foster Friess about aspirin as a contraceptive that drove a couple of days of coverage insinuating the comment told us something important about Santorum’s own views.
Santorum is a standing affront to the sensibilities and assumptions of the media and political elite. That elite is constantly writing the obituary for social conservatism, which is supposed to wither away and leave a polite, undisturbed consensus in favor of social liberalism. Santorum not only defends beliefs that are looked down upon as dated and unrealistic, he does it with a passionate sincerity that opens him to mockery and attack.
If Santorum had the social views of a Barbara Boxer, he would be hailed in all the glossy magazines as a political virtuoso. He has fought a front-runner with all the advantages to a jump ball in Michigan. His aides can’t provide advance texts of his speeches because he always extemporizes and speaks from a few notes. He is dogged, willing to lose on behalf of what he believes and committed to trying to convince others of his positions.
In the wake of his surprise showing in the Iowa caucuses, news coverage focused on Santorum arguing about gay marriage with college kids at his New Hampshire events. It was taken as a sign of his monomania. Yet he genuinely — if naively — wanted to convince them. If the cauldron of a presidential campaign is not the best place for Socratic exchanges on hot-button issues, Santorum was trying to do more than repeat sound bites back at youthful questioners.
Although his critics will never credit him for it, Santorum’s social conservatism brings with it an unstinting devotion to human dignity, a touchstone for the former senator. The latest position for which he’s taking incoming is his opposition to a government mandate for insurance coverage of prenatal testing often used to identify handicapped babies who are subsequently aborted. For his detractors, his respect for the disabled is trumped by his unforgivable opposition to abortion.
Santorum conceives of his social views as a badly needed support for economic aspiration. It’s no accident that the Republican candidate most committed to the traditional family and associated virtues is also the one who talks most about the struggles of the working class. He frequently cites research from the Brookings Institution showing that simply getting a high-school diploma, getting married before having children and getting a job — the so-called success sequence — are powerful tools against poverty.
As Jeffrey Bell, author of the new book “The Case for Polarized Politics,” notes in a Wall Street Journal interview, Santorum’s style of social conservatism is deeply American. No other Western country saw the rise of such a social-conservative movement after the social upheaval of the 1960s. Bell traces American social conservatism back ultimately to the God-given natural rights enunciated in the Declaration of Independence. Sure enough, Santorum is given to quoting the Declaration.
That won’t stop Santorum-haters from portraying him as threateningly un-America. He can play into the negative image of him. In one interview last year, he said that as president he would warn people of the dangers of contraception, a task better suited to a youth minister or Catholic premarital counselor than the leader of the free world.
Santorum occasionally needs to curb his enthusiasms. But the implicit message of his candidacy is unassailable: Denounce and dismiss it as you please, American social conservatism is here to stay.
Rich Lowry is a syndicated columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at: email@example.com.