Washington political pros think they know why Democrats and liberal interest groups have drawn a bull’s-eye on Sen. Rick Santorum’s electoral soul. The Pennsylvania Republican faces a challenging re-election bid next year against state Treasurer Bob Casey Jr., the son of a former governor who wields instant name ID and a pro-life reputation. Experts say Mr. Santorum’s below-50 percent poll number and his opponent’s recent fund-raising success are foreboding signs for his continued legislative employment.
But the pros have it backward. They argue a Republican senator, challenged by a pro-life Democrat, faces erosion within his conservative base. Yet just the opposite may occur. Mr. Santorum’s outspoken advocacy of compassionate conservative policies, coupled with Mr. Casey’s coming lurch to the left to accommodate liberal interest groups, means Mr. Casey might not have enough political rope to hold an ideologically diverse coalition together.
The liberal establishment rates Mr. Santorum as public enemy No. 1, not only because of his positions on abortion or marriage, and not just tit-for-tat payback for Republicans beating Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle last year — all favorite inside-the-Beltway explanations for Democratic animus. It’s more because Mr. Santorum is toxic to their coalition.
By advocating alternatives to liberal social policies and articulating a vision of hope, opportunity and empowerment for the underprivileged, he potentially attracts significant chunks of non-traditional voters to the Republican camp — defections Democrats cannot afford. Mr. Santorum is an antidote to arrogance for those who believe Democrats take them for granted and for those weary of more promises, failed policies or unacceptable results. Triggering even a minor rebellion among black, Hispanic and other traditionally solid Democrat base voters could end decades of thankless, liberal hegemony within these communities. Mr. Santorum leads this revolution, and the Left wants him stopped.
He has spearheaded welfare reform and the CARE Act, a bill to promote more charitable giving and strengthen the institutions providing needed services. He also coauthored the Senate Poverty Alleviation Agenda, a series of bills that reform programs for the poor and promote housing ownership. Working with Irish rocker Bono, Mr. Santorum prodded his colleagues to act on issues like Third World debt relief and the AIDS pandemic in Africa.
His latest effort to shape the debate is his book, “It Takes a Family — Conservatism and the Common Good.” Mr. Santorum came to the uncomfortable realization, he says, that conservatives were not only “cheap liberals” (because they wanted to do the same thing as liberals, but just spend less), “but they hadn’t even thought much about what might work better.”
Yet if Mr. Santorum offers such an illuminating new vision for the underprivileged, then why are his poll numbers dimming? (The Hotline reported yesterday that a recent survey of likely voters showed Mr. Santorum trailing 52 percent to 36 percent among likely voters.) For starters, his opponent has the luxury of being all things to all people — more of a myth than a true candidate. As the campaign unfolds and Mr. Casey faces the inevitable increasing demands of liberal, secular interest groups within the Democratic Party, the fabled Casey name, built by his father, might become less attractive. At a joint appearance last week in Pennsylvania, several observers noted a stark stature gap, with the challenger not looking ready for prime time.
Pressure on Mr. Casey to move left is already mounting, too. MoveOn.org will play a major role trying to elect him, already telling supporters in June that he was “part of our larger plan to win key seats and elect progressives in 2006.” According to the American Spectator, a Democratic leadership staffer said “everyone was assured Casey was going to hang tough with us on reproductive rights and judges.” He also has opposed other compassionate conservative ideas like school choice and welfare reform.
All of this will create mounting cross pressure on his presumed supporters and lead to non-traditional defections. Arthur C. Brooks, writing in the fall 2004 issue of the Public Interest, underscores these risks, demonstrating that religiously oriented Democrats are much more likely to switch parties than faith-oriented Republicans. “As a practical matter, the rapidly secularized Democratic Party should probably view religious blacks as an “at-risk population,” he writes.
So defeating Mr. Santorum is more than payback for Democrats and is motivated by more than his views on certain social issues, over which the mainstream media obsesses. It’s about creating a credible alternative to the welfare state, which might also draw millions of new voters to the Republican Party. What happens in Pennsylvania next fall has long-term implications for the complexion of the GOP coalition. Mr. Santorum is political kryptonite to liberals playing Superman with social policy. They want to silence him before his new narrative becomes a best seller with disaffected Democrats.
By Elaine Donnelly
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