Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, a staunch conservative running for re-election in a liberal Northeast state during a presidential-election year, was on everyone’s list of vulnerable Republican senators in the 2000 election cycle.
But Mr. Santorum not only won a second term with 52 percent of the vote while Al Gore was sweeping his state with ease, he was the only one on the GOP’s “vulnerable” list to come back this year.
“Of all the tough senatorial races our party had, we lost them all except mine,” he told me with mixed feelings of regret and victory during a recent interview in his Capitol Hill office. Sens. Abraham of Michigan, Ron Grams of Minnesota, William Roth of Delaware, Slade Gorton of Washington and John Ashcroft of Missouri all lost their re-election bids.
When Mr. Santorum returned to Washington after surviving a bruising re-election battle, his Republican colleagues rewarded the boyish-looking 42-year-old lawmaker by making him the chairman of the Republican Conference, the fourth-highest leadership post in the Senate.
This is a critically important position. As chairman of the Republican Conference, Mr. Santorum is responsible for promoting the GOP’s positions to the electorate at large. And with Republicans barely clinging to majority status in the Senate, and facing the possibility of losing it two years from now, Mr. Santorum has his work cut out for him. But he has a lot of ideas about what his party needs to do to rebuild its shattered majority, and he doesn’t mince words about what he thinks need to be done.
“We need to do a lot better job of communicating our message here,” he said.
“You can point your finger at the liberal news media, and I think you would be right in saying that, but we haven’t had a coordinated effort, at least in the Senate, to work with those members of the media to make sure they have our side of the story,” he said.
Too often, he suggests, GOP senators in positions of influence do not make any real attempt to reach out to the news media here to get the party’s message out during key legislative battles. And that, he says, has hurt the party’s image.
“We need to work hard to build relationships in the media here, and to recognize that the role of our leaders is not to just build our message at home but here,” where the national news media reports to the nation, he said.
“We need to better market our ideas. They [GOP leaders] focus most of their time on policy and very little time on communicating what that policy means to people,” he said.
Mr. Santorum says his job as conference chairman will be “to convince my colleagues that communicating is not an optional thing to do. It has to be as important as the policy itself.”
There are times, however, when he thinks Republicans hurt their cause by talking too much. House Republican leaders, he says, did not help George W. Bush or the party when they talked openly about their strategy for passing tax cuts in the New Year and suggested they may not act on the cuts until later in the year.
“You don’t negotiate these things in the media. I don’t think it’s necessarily helpful to Bush to say we’re not going to do something,” he said in a slap at Republican leaders.
Because of the 50-50 party lineup in the Senate, Mr. Santorum thinks the GOP is going to have to be more forthcoming with the Democrats by letting them bring up their amendments and bills. “I think you’ll see very little Republican effort to block Democratic legislation. We’ll have to rise or fall on those votes.”
But he does not want the 50-50 ratio extended to the committees, where he thinks the GOP must have the one-vote edge needed to move legislation and nominations to the floor. “Committees should not be places where things die,” he says.
Mr. Santorum also has this warning for the Senate Democratic leader, Tom Daschle of South Dakota: Don’t play the kind of partisan, bill-blocking politics that former Senate Democratic Leader George Mitchell of Maine used against President Bush. “If Daschle follows the George Mitchell school of leadership, it’s going to be very difficult to get things done,” he says.
He predicts President-elect Bush is going to get more of his agenda through Congress than the TV pundits think he will.
“George W. Bush is a far better communicator than his father was, and is going to get a lot of things done. I think you’ll see a substantial number of tax-rate reductions passed,” he said.
But he cautions Mr. Bush to keep his communications focused outside of the Washington Beltway, just as Ronald Reagan did in the 1980s in order to go over the heads of a monolithic and hostile media.
“If we spend all our time going out to Andrews Air Force base in budget negotiations, we’ll lose, because if it’s an inside game we lose. The game has to be played outside of Capitol Hill.
And I think the president-elect understands that that the key is not to put your faith in Tom Daschle, but to put your faith in the American public,” he said.
Good advice from an up-and-coming conservative leader who is going places. You will be seeing a lot of Rick Santorum in the months and years to come.