Strange Bedfellow

Sen. Symbol, R-Pa.

Rick Santorum’s pathetic grandstanding.

Rick Santorum, the pudgy-faced freshman senator from Pennsylvania, is a hero among social conservatives this week for producing a big majority vote in favor of his proposed ban on partial-birth abortions. Even pro-choice pundits have declared themselves impressed that Santorum got five more votes than he did the last time his bill came up, and that this year’s converts included Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota (who emitted a stream of gobbledygook when asked to explain his flip-flop).

But it may be worth noting that thanks to his victory, Santorum will be responsible for more, not fewer, abortions in the United States. Here’s why: As the debate heated up last week, Daschle offered a compromise that the White House was apparently willing to support. Daschle’s alternative would have gone far beyond what Santorum has proposed, banning abortions by any method once a fetus is “viable.” The point of viability is now as early as 22 weeks into a pregnancy (and seems likely to be stalled there absent some huge scientific breakthrough–see Slate’s “Gist“). But Santorum rejected Daschle’s proposal in favor of his own narrower ban.

Why would a believing Catholic like Santorum attach a higher priority to prohibiting a grotesque-seeming but relatively rare practice than to curtailing–perhaps significantly–the number of abortions performed nationally? Santorum himself has contended that partial-birth abortions are never necessary–from the patient’s point of view. If his partial-birth ban becomes law, women could still get a late-term abortion using a different method. But under Daschle’s proposal, late-term abortions of all types would become illegal, except in cases where there was a dire threat to the mother’s health. What’s more, Clinton indicated that he would have signed the Daschle alternative, which would have made it the law of the land. Clinton has pledged to veto Santorum’s bill. In other words, Santorum preferred having an issue with which to beat Democrats to achieving a genuine victory. He hinted at this reasoning at the press conference he held Tuesday after the vote. “We’ve got members up for re-election,” he told reporters. “I wouldn’t want to be home defending this vote anywhere in the country.”

That choice is the essence of Rick Santorum. All politicians draw upon symbols and symbolic issues like partial-birth abortion, which often have little real-world consequences. Few, though, can match Santorum in the pursuit of political symbolism to the detriment of substance. In his quest for wedge issues, Santorum has managed, in his short time in the Senate, to make Trent Lott look like a man of principle, John Warner like a deep thinker, and Newt Gingrich like Miss Manners.

L ike many on the right who decry the role of government, Santorum is largely a product of it. In Martinsburg, W. Va., where he lived until the age of 7, both his parents worked at the Veterans’ Administration Hospital. With the help of student loans, young Rick attended Penn State, then got an MBA from the University of Pittsburgh and a law degree from Dickinson. He bought his first house with the help of a Pennsylvania low-income-housing assistance program. His only exposure to life in the private sector was a brief stint as a lawyer and lobbyist (where his clients included the World Wrestling Federation). Nonetheless, Santorum can sound like a militia member when he gets busy denouncing big government: “I’ve read the Bible. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that America will be here 100 years from now,” he said at a rally in 1994. “We can blow this. This country can fail. This government can take your freedom. I know you feel safe for now … but don’t give up your freedoms. Don’t give up your freedom.” In the article in which these comments were quoted, his tone of voice was described as an impassioned whisper.

After he was elected to the House in 1990, Santorum became the leader of the so-called “Group of Seven,” a clique that prefigured the Gingrich class of 1994. His gang’s chief issue was the House Bank scandal and their goal, to force full disclosure of the number of checks bounced by various members. Their second-biggest issue was opposition to congressional pay raises. While he tried to incite the public about these totemic reform issues, Santorum immersed himself in the far more subversive legal corruption of the campaign-finance system. His biggest supporters were the pharmaceutical and medical-insurance industries, impressed with his implacable resistance to health-care reform. In both the House and the Senate, he has remained firm in his doctrinaire opposition to any kind of meaningful campaign-finance reform.

Hepped up on Gingrich’s candidate-training tapes, Santorum announced his plans to run against incumbent Harris Wofford in 1994. The winning campaign Santorum ran was notable for its uncalled-for personal nastiness. Responding to Wofford’s support for national service, Santorum smirked, “Someone’s going to pick up trash in a park and sing ‘Kumbayah’ around a campfire and you’re going to give them 90 percent of the benefits of the GI Bill.” Santorum fictitiously claimed that those enrolled in AmeriCorps received $30,000 a year, then accused Wofford of being dishonest. “I have never seen another candidate in my life who would stand up in front of the voters and tell lies, absolute lies, the way he does,” he fulminated.

At 36, Santorum became the youngest member of the Senate and made a name for treating fainthearted older members of his own party with the same boorishness and arrogance he had displayed toward Wofford. Shortly after being elected, he attacked Mark Hatfield, the senior senator from Oregon, for refusing to provide the margin of victory in a Senate vote on the balanced-budget amendment. Santorum proposed punishing Hatfield by stripping him of his chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee. That, Santorum reasoned, was how things worked in the House. The effort was roundly defeated in the Republican Caucus.

Santorum’s personal unpleasantness and affinity for injecting religion into politics have led many liberals to cast him as a sort of Jesse Helms of the North. In fact, Santorum’s voting record on many issues is more in line with the moderate profile of Pennsylvania’s other senator, Arlen Specter. Santorum is rarely on the losing side of any 80-20 vote in the Senate. Though he is no friend to the environmental movement, he is relatively pro-union. He supported Bill Clinton’s proposed ban on permanent replacement of strikers and voted for an increase in the minimum wage.

One looks in vain, however, for any thread of consistent belief. Santorum is pro-life, but supports the death penalty; he opposed NAFTA, but favored GATT; he wants to balance the budget while providing more pork for Pennsylvania. Unlike some of his class of ‘94 comrades in the House, who are principled in their bullheaded way, he never met a principle he wouldn’t swap for a few more votes. As he cultivates the impression that he is standing on his convictions in the partial-birth abortion fight, Rick Santorum is in reality doing just the opposite.