Rick Santorum's bogus "populist" reinvention: Why he's still terrifying

The hard-right social warrior wants to rebrand as a champion of the working class. Here's why it won't work

By Simon Maloy
May 20, 2014 8:25PM (UTC)
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(AP/Charlie Neibergall)

My favorite conspiracy from the 2012 presidential campaign arose shortly after the January 7, 2012, Republican debate, when conservatives convinced themselves that George Stephanopoulos, the moderator, had colluded with Democrats to embarrass Mitt Romney.

Stephanopoulos had asked Romney whether he believes states have the right to ban contraception. Romney was puzzled by the question (“George, this is an unusual topic that you’re raising”) but said he opposed bans on contraception. After the debate, conservatives started wondering whether Stephanopoulos had been coached by Democratic operatives to ask the question as part of the “War on Women” messaging effort. They could think of no other explanation for why he would bring so random a topic up at the debate. “I just don't believe George Stephanpolous's question on birth control wasn't coordinated,” Erick Erickson wrote at the time.


There was, of course, a more plausible explanation for why he asked about banning contraception: Rick Santorum. Just five days before the debate, Santorum was asked by Stephanopoulos’ then-colleague Jake Tapper if he still believed that states have the right to pass laws banning contraception, and Santorum said yes. “The state has a right to do that, I have never questioned that the state has a right to do that. It is not a constitutional right, the state has the right to pass whatever statues they have.”

This is the Rick Santorum we’ve all known and been vaguely terrified of for the last 20 years: the hard-charging social conservative whose mission in public life was to stop you from having sex unless you intended to have a baby. Now Santorum is trying to build off his insurgent 2012 presidential campaign and rebrand himself as an economically minded “Republican populist” ahead of the 2016 contest.

The Wall Street Journal explains “Why Republicans Should Take Rick Santorum Seriously,” arguing that the 2012 Republican primary runner-up understands the economic and political isolation felt by working class white voters. Writing for National Review, Quinn Hillyer argues against the “deep skepticism” a Santorum 2016 run faces from political observers, saying that Santorum understands the “linkage between the erosion of traditional values and the economic plight of non-professionals.”


For Santorum this makes sense. Mitt Romney was a living caricature of the Republican plutocrat looking out for the interests of the wealthy, and the post “47 percent” political environment left a lot of space for ambitious GOPers to cultivate an image as the Republican who “gets it.” Santorum tried running as the social conservative scold who wants us to keep it in our collective pants, and he didn’t make it out of the qualifying round. Running as a hero of the working class might work better for him.

Of course, being a “populist” in today’s GOP only allows you so much room to operate. And Santorum is showing that his economic philosophy still embodies much of the makers-versus-takers thinking that undergirded Romney’s 47 percent remarks.

Take the minimum wage as an example. Ask Santorum where he stands on the issue and you’ll get different answers depending on which day it is. Talking to MSNBC’s Chuck Todd on May 5, Santorum endorsed the minimum wage. “If the Republicans want to go out and say they’re against the minimum wage, then go out and make the argument to the American public and 80-some percent of the American public who believes we should have a minimum wage,” Santorum said, arguing that the minimum wage should be raised as needed to ensure that it covers roughly seven percent of workers.


Just a few days earlier, however, Santorum went on Morning Joe and bashed the idea of raising the minimum wage. “We keep – for helping people, the minimum wage, another -- We’re going to help people! We’re going to make wages more! Well, you do that, you disincentivize people to hire, and you incentivize them to buy a machine to do what a person can do.” Asked by Mike Barnicle if raising the federal minimum wage really provides disincentives to hiring, Santorum said “Well of course. You make labor more expensive.”


For the people at the bottom of the economic ladder, Santorum the “populist” proposes cutting off government aid to the unemployed and putting faith in unchecked bootstrap-ism. The social safety net has become “a hunter’s net that ensnares the vulnerable,” Santorum argues in his new book, adopting a more aggressive framing than Paul Ryan’s famous hammock metaphor. Writing about an unemployed person who’s been on benefits for two years, Santorum says his “job skills have probably eroded, his work habits and attitude are questionable, and he is more likely than someone else to go back on unemployment.”

Santorum’s long been a fan of not providing federal benefits to the needy. During the winter of 2011 he called for cutting unemployment and ending federal home heating assistance. “Just because these people need help doesn't mean the federal government needs to help.” Sure sounds “populist” to me!

And that’s kind of the point. Santorum can get away with calling himself a “Republican populist” because the Republican brand of late has been defined with active antagonism towards the less fortunate. The Republican Senate nominee in North Carolina wants to goad poor people into resenting each other so that the Democratic Party can be divided and conquered. Next to that, a Republican who gives half-hearted, contradictory statements supporting a minimum wage increase seems like William Jennings Bryan reborn.


In the end, though, this is still Rick Santorum we’re talking about. He’s the same guy who equated gay marriage to having sex with a dog, the same guy who thinks contraception is “a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.” He can rebrand his economic philosophy all he wants, but that long record of hard-right social activism will always be there to drag him back out of the mainstream.

Simon Maloy

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