Rick Santorum can draw on a vast wealth of congressional experience in arguing that he knows how to manipulate the levers of power in Washington.
And that’s precisely the problem.
As he demonstrated yet again in Wednesday’s debate, Santorum speaks like a subcommittee chairman. Rather than reach for a broad theme, he’ll wallow in the world of votes and amendments. He thinks legislative history is at the heart of almost any question. He argues, with a straight face, that “there were good earmarks and bad earmarks,” and proceeds to draw the distinction—at length.
Santorum’s challenge, if he is to cling to his frontrunner status against Mitt Romney, goes beyond a pedestrian speaking style that flatlines rather than soars. His real difficulty is that his 16 years in the House and Senate hang around his neck like an albatross.
There is a reason that no member of Congress won the presidency between 1960 and 2008 (and in Barack Obama’s case, he had been on the Hill a mere two years when he started running). Serving as a lawmaker means dining on an endless buffet of foul-smelling choices, cheesy compromises, and hold-your-nose votes. You’re always one utterance away from John Kerry’s immortal I-voted-for-it-before-I-voted-against-it blunder.
Some of the criticism of legislative maneuvering is ridiculous, but life is unfair. In explaining why he voted for George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law, even though it violated his views against federal intrusiveness, Santorum said: “When you’re part of the team, sometimes you take one for the team, for the leader, and I made a mistake.” Almost everyone who’s served in Congress has cast votes on the basis of party loyalty, particularly to help a newly elected president. But it sounds bad when you have to defend it.
The same goes for Santorum’s support for his fellow Pennsylvania Republican, Arlen Specter. Despite his moderate leanings, Specter was a member in good standing with the GOP who did help confirm Bush’s Supreme Court nominees, and it would have been an extraordinary breach for Santorum to have dumped him for a primary challenger, the more conservative Pat Toomey. But that handed Romney an opening at the CNN debate, given that Specter later jumped to the Democratic Party and supported Obamacare.
Where it got really painful was when the strongly anti-abortion candidate struggled to explain away his vote for a law that includes federal funding of family-planning services. “I’ve always opposed Title X funding, but it’s included in a large appropriation bill that includes a whole host of other things, including”—here the boos began—“the funding for the National Institutes of Health, the funding for Health and Human Services, and a whole bunch of other departments. It’s a multibillion-dollar bill.” Santorum went on to talk about introducing a bill called Title XX, at which point he was twisting himself in knots.
His explanation is not that crazy: big spending bills often include things a lawmaker both likes and detests, which is why Santorum wound up voting for Sarah Palin’s Bridge to Nowhere. A major bill may contain dozens of bridges to nowhere, or boondoggle favors to some deep-pocketed donor. But it sounded for all the world like Santorum didn’t stand for anything. Worse, he was arguing with Ron Paul, a tack that made little sense.
A shrewder wordsmith might have better navigated the thicket of legislative traps during the Arizona debate. Instead, Santorum said things like this: “The 12 years I was in the United States Senate, we went from the debt to GDP ratio, which is now over 100 percent. When I came to the Senate it was 68 percent of GDP. When I left the Senate it was 64 percent of GDP.” Big whoop.
Governors also have records, and Santorum pressed Romney on asking for federal earmarks while he was running Massachusetts, as well as during his stint heading the Salt Lake City Olympics. But for the most part, governors get to make up-or-down decisions, vetoing bills they don’t like, while lawmakers are trapped in the sausage factory of tawdry tradeoffs.
Given that Santorum was under constant attack during the debate, he handled himself pretty well. He finessed questions about his personal opposition to contraception and found ways to keep jabbing back at Romney. He made no major mistakes that could come back to haunt him.
But as the country gets better acquainted with Santorum, he is starting to be defined as a Washington insider in a year when so much Republican anger is directed toward the Capitol. He is also the guy who, lest we forget, lost his reelection bid six years ago in a landslide. If Santorum is to remain a viable alternative to Romney, he needs to pull himself out of the Beltway swamp and gain a little altitude.