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Tuesday, November 20 , 2018, 10:59 am | Fair 68º


Mark Shields: Rick Santorum — GOP Populist, 2012 Version

Presidential candidate should stick to his roots, emphasizing his commitment to improving the lives of blue-collar Americans

CONCORD, N.H. — During the campaign for the 1996 Republican presidential nomination, Malcolm “Steve” Forbes pushed a flat-tax plan that would have abolished all taxes on dividends and capital gains. Pat Buchanan, in characteristically understated fashion, charged that the Forbes plan was written to benefit “the boys down at the yacht basin,” because under it, “lounge lizards in Palm Beach pay a lower tax rate than steelworkers in Youngstown.” Those were the days of populist prose and open class warfare in the Republican Party.

There was more than a hint of class in Rick Santorum’s moving Iowa “victory speech.” In paying tribute to his Italian immigrant grandfather, “who worked in a mine in a company town and lived in a shack,” Santorum recalled his grandfather’s wake when he, a youngster, knelt beside the open casket and was struck by the largeness of his grandfather’s gnarled hands: “All I could think of was those hands dug freedom for me.”

For all practical purposes, Santorum, on a January night in Des Moines, was introducing himself to the nation as the proud product of a blue-collar family born, unlike the favored Republican front-runner, to neither privilege nor power.

Here in New Hampshire, post-Iowa, Santorum has been warmly received, especially by the less upscale Republicans he has met. While he concedes the loss of social mobility in the United States when compared to “socialist” Western Europe and promises to confront the historic decline of manufacturing in the American heartland, Santorum is leading no pitchfork brigades in 2012. You will hear from him no mocking of “the boys down at the yacht basin.”

But on the Thursday before this state’s first-in-the-nation primary, Santorum — the favorite of religious and social conservative Republican voters — found himself on the defensive before a Concord audience that included many students. The Pennsylvania Republican, an uncompromising opponent of same-sex marriage, was asked by a high-school senior, after he had spoken about the value and dignity of the individual person as uniquely defining the United States: “How do you justify your beliefs based on those high morals you have about ‘all men being created equal’ when two men want to marry?” Santorum interrupted, “What about three men?” Suddenly, the Iowa long-shot “winner” was very much on the defensive.

When Santorum was in the U.S. Senate, Americans by a landslide 68 percent to 29 percent margin told Gallup that “marriages between same-sex couples should not be recognized by the law as valid.” By 2011, there had been a sea-change in opinion. A 51 percent majority for the first time believed same-sex marriages should be recognized in law with the same rights as traditional marriages. Particularly telling, younger Americans — those under 35 — are the most in favor of recognizing same-sex marriage.

During his second Senate term, Santorum told The Associated Press: “In every society, the definition of marriage has not to my knowledge included homosexuality. That’s not to pick on homosexuality. It’s not, you know, man on child, man on dog or whatever the case may be.”

Upon hearing the “man on dog” line, Mark Russell, the peerless political humorist, observed, “Bestiality is never consensual.”

In fact, when compared to the man-on-dog argument, Santorum’s “What about three men?” rebuttal seems mild. One can argue that, to his credit, Santorum does not flinch from defending an increasingly unpopular position on a controversial issue. He is not a flip-flopper. But in the short time he has to make the case on why voters should choose him over Mitt Romney or, later, President Barack Obama, Santorum would be better off emphasizing his roots, coupled with his passionate commitment to improving the lives of forgotten blue-collar Americans, than by railing against the political straw man of polygamy.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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