Rick Santorum's moral flexibility

Tom Schaller says even the voice of conservative rectitude has been influenced by the pull of party unity

January 10, 2012|Thomas F. Schaller

Rick Santorum speaks with the force of moral certainty. His sweater vests convey an inner calm during a time of national angst. Like him or not, the former Pennsylvania senator projects the image of a staunch, straight-shooting conservative.

But the record shows that Mr. Santorum executed a couple of curious, early-career reversals from what today are unacceptable party-line positions.

Digging through old clips this week, I discovered a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article from October 1990, the year Mr. Santorum first won election to the U.S. House. On abortion, Mr. Santorum copped to trying to "dance around the issue, not really take a position on it." In a December 1989 policy paper drafted for his campaign, he declared his opposition only to third-trimester and publicly funded abortions — implying that he supported privately funded abortions during the first six months of a woman's pregnancy. That policy document "later had to be quietly withdrawn," the Post-Gazette reported.

Likewise, conservative author and blogger Nancy French unearthed a newspaper article from 1994 — the year then-Representative Santorum defeated incumbent Democrat Harris Wofford to win election to the U.S. Senate — indicating that Mr. Santorum initially supported an individual mandate for health insurance. This idea, first proposed by the conservative Heritage Foundation, is decried by Republicans today as a dangerous and unconstitutional form of socialism.

What should we make of Mr. Santorum's reversals on the most controversial social issue of the past four decades and one of the most controversial domestic policy ideas of the past four years?

The more charitable and not unreasonable view is that Mr. Santorum pondered both issues more deeply and simply changed his mind. There's nothing inherently wrong with that. If politicians become so ideologically and intellectually rigid that they can no longer be persuaded by anyone at any time on any issue, collective intransigence will paralyze our government. (We're pretty close to this point already, of course, with today's Congress featuring both record levels of party polarization and record-low levels of public approval.)

The less charitable view, however, is that Mr. Santorum switched positions for the sake of electoral and political expediency. In an interview last week with Salon's Steve Kornacki, Mr. Wofford recalled how Mr. Santorum shrewdly capitalized during that 1994 campaign on his relatively recent conversion to a fully pro-life identity.

According to David Karol, my political science colleague down the road at the University of Maryland in College Park, politicians in both parties have a long history of switching positions — particularly on hot-button issues like abortion — in the interest of party cohesion.

"When abortion first began to be discussed in national politics in the early 1970s, the issue cut across party lines in Congress and in the electorate. Republican voters were actually slightly more pro-choice on average than Democrats until the mid-1980s," Mr. Karol, author of "Party Position Change in American Politics," wrote to me by email. "At first many elected officials in both parties adopted positions consistent with their constituents' views or their religious backgrounds. Over time, however, the parties have gradually adopted more cohesive positions on abortion."

That said, Mr. Santorum finds himself in good company. Republicans who abandoned earlier, more pro-choice abortion stances, notes Mr. Karol, include Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, both Presidents Bush, and Mr. Santorum's fellow Pennsylvanian and current U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey.

As for his health care mandate reversal, here again we see the triumph of partisan fealty over policy merits. "I don't doubt that people change and alter their views over the course of several years," writes Ms. French on her blog. "But this is what gets me: the absolute moral indignation candidates like Newt [Gingrich] and Santorum show when they act as if they'd never consider such an 'unconstitutional concept.'"

On both flip-flops, Mr. Santorum surely recognized that an idea's policy value sometimes must be sacrificed to its political value for gaining votes, endorsements and campaign contributions. And let's be clear: President Barack Obama and many Democrats succumb to similar party or interest group pressure. This is the state of American politics today.

So don't be fooled that Mr. Santorum derives all his positions from core personal convictions. Beneath that moralistic mask is the face of a party loyalist.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is schaller67@gmail.com, and you can follow him on Twitter at @schaller67.

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