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08.12.09

Santorum Is Dangerous

In the sixth in a series of posts on the 2012 landscape, former Bush and McCain strategist Mark McKinnon says that despite former Senator Rick Santorum’s actions and extreme ideology, he and his foray into Iowa should be taken seriously.

A Rick Santorum presidency would be very, very dangerous for America.

Unfortunately, he’s thinking about it. No matter what they say, assume that any politician who steps inside the borders of Iowa or New Hampshire has got the presidential itch. And Santorum just announced a series of Iowa visits to scratch himself before conservative activists.

Santorum represents, in my view, much of what is wrong the in the Republican Party. While I disagree with him on some fundamental issues, I am much more concerned with his lack of character.

Santorum is a strong neoconservative who represented Pennsylvania in the House of Representatives and the Senate over a 16-year period and rose to the No. 3 leadership position among Republicans.

Santorum once grouped gay sex with incest, polygamy, and bestiality, and he believes consenting adults have no constitutional right to privacy when it comes to sexual behavior. He is a strong supporter of teaching intelligent design. He is anti-gay, anti-immigrant—supporting the most extreme anti-immigrant legislative proposals though he is the son of an Italian immigrant father—antiabortion, and anti-anything that smacks of progressive thinking, centrism, bipartisanship, or moderation in the Republican Party.

Santorum was one of only two senators who voted against Robert Gates to be secretary of Defense because Gates advocated talking to Iran and Syria, which Santorum said would be talking to “radical Islam” and would be a grievous error.

Santorum represents, in my view, much of what is wrong the in the Republican Party. While I disagree with him on some fundamental issues, I am much more concerned with his lack of character.

Here’s why.

Early in 2008, Santorum claimed a John McCain presidency would be “very, very dangerous for Republicans.” OK, he was entitled to support the candidate of his choice, but launching vicious frontal attacks on McCain that continued well after he received the nomination did nothing but hurt the GOP and its chances.

But that’s not the worst of it.

A friend of mine ran into Santorum at a conservative think tank event in Washington, DC, in January 2008 and asked him why he had been bashing McCain on Sean Hannity’s show. He replied he thought McCain would be a terrible president and that he would rather have Hillary Clinton as commander in chief.

Wait, there’s more.

Recalling that Santorum had once featured McCain at one of his fundraisers, my friend asked him how he squared his conscience if he thought McCain was so dangerous. His response?

“Because I wanted to win.”

Nice, huh? Win at all costs. Even if it means inviting a guy you think is “dangerous” to help you raise money for your race and then turn around and thank him by attacking him publicly when he needs your help. Or at least needs you to shut up.

Santorum’s view of conservatism departs from the libertarian tradition of Republican icons like Ronald Reagan.

Here’s Reagan in 1975:

“If you analyze it I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism...The basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom, and this is a pretty general description also of what libertarianism is.”

And here’s Santorum in 2005:

“One of the criticisms I make is to what I refer to as more of a libertarianish right...This whole idea of personal autonomy, well, I don’t think most conservatives hold that point of view. Some do. They have this idea that people should be left alone, be able to do whatever they want to do, government should keep our taxes down and keep our regulations low, that we shouldn’t get involved in the bedroom, we shouldn’t get involved in cultural issues. You know, people should do whatever they want. Well, that is not how traditional conservatives view the world, and I think most conservatives understand that individuals can’t go it alone. That there is no such society that I am aware of, where we’ve had radical individualism and that it succeeds as a culture.”

I’m a pretty tolerant guy, but beyond his ideology, some of Santorum’s behavior is just a little bizarre. For example, Santorum has six children. In 1996, he had son born prematurely who lived for only two hours. He and wife brought the child home and introduced the dead infant to the rest of their children as “your brother Gabriel” and slept with the body overnight.

Despite his actions and extreme ideology, and the fact that he was defeated in his bid for re-election by the widest margin of any incumbent senator since 1980, Rick Santorum should be taken seriously. He is articulate, focused, and a tenacious campaigner. And ideological conservatives love him. His base will be narrow but passionate. They will mobilize and they will vote. Especially in early primary states like Iowa and South Carolina.

And that means there’s one word that should come to mind when thinking about a Rick Santorum presidential candidacy: dangerous.

(So, it is with great reluctance that we add Santorum to our Top 10 list of likely GOP presidential contenders. The list isn’t what we want to happen, it’s just what we think might happen.)

1. Mitt Romney
2. Tim Pawlenty
3. John Thune
4. Mike Huckabee
5. Sarah Palin
6. Newt Gingrich
7. Haley Barbour
8. Rick Santorum
9. Bobby Jindal
10. Mitch Daniels
(Long shot: Eric Cantor)

As vice chairman of Public Strategies and president of Maverick Media, Mark McKinnon has helped meet strategic challenges for candidates, causes, and individuals, including George W. Bush, John McCain, Governor Ann Richards, Charlie Wilson, Lance Armstrong, and Bono.