Missing the point on Santorum

In the year-end Who's Next issue, Newsweek's Howard Fineman floats the Senator-Rick-Santorum-for-president trial balloon.

The full two-page spread that the story opens with has Santorum standing in his office, a St. Thomas More painting on his right. Drapes open on his left to allow sunlight to stream in, highlighting that side of his body. He has a sort of taciturn forced smile and one hand rests on a jar that promises to deliver Hershey's Chocolate (he's from Pennsylvania, get it?).

Further left is a flat-screen television, turned to a Fox News still. The head, shoulders, and staff of a shepherd are visible. The screen caption reads "Should School Songs Exclude the Word 'Christ'?"

And the article duly plays up Santorum's Catholic conservative credentials. The headline writer assures us that the senator is "hard at work spreading the GOP gospel" as part of his "crusades" that just might land him in the White House. Again in the second sentence, politics for Santorum is not a way of life but "a bruising crusade."

Once a pothead, Santorum is now "a devout and devoted family man" with "six home-schooled children." As a legislator, he is "determined to champion the [C]hurch's traditional moral principles in the public square."

Santorum questions the way public schools teach evolution. He thinks that a "constitutionally based right to privacy" is something the Supreme Court made up. Though he wouldn't himself vote to ban contraception, he believes such things (including sodomy laws) should not be off-limits to state legislatures. His federalism has limits, however; he does back a constitutional amendment to fix the definition of marriage as "one man and one woman."

Only after we've gotten through all that do we learn -- almost in passing -- that Santorum has recently been "stung by criticism from early supporters who view him as an apostate for helping to save the Judiciary Committee chairmanship for his Pennsylvania colleague, moderate (i.e., pro-choice) Arlen Specter."

Talk about burying the lede!

It isn't only Santorum's support for Arlen Specter for chair of the Judiciary Committee -- after Specter used his election-night victory to hint that he thought Roe v. Wade was settled law and would gavel accordingly -- that has "early supporters" hot and bothered. There's also the not-so-small matter of Representative Pat Toomey's conservative primary challenge -- a race in which Santorum called a pol slightly to the left of himself "too conservative" to be elected to the Senate from Pennsylvania.

Yet Pat Toomey doesn't even show up in the Newsweek story, which is a bit like telling the story of St. Paul but leaving out the road to Damascus.

To me, the interesting thing about the story of Santorum is what it says about the modern Republican Party. The junior senator from Pennsylvania has succeeded because he is an intriguing mix of conservative Catholic firebrand and GOP hack. There's a story there that I hope some enterprising journalist will tell.

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