Politics

A College Paper by Rick Santorum—And What It Says About His Political Evolution

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This past weekend, Rick Santorum briefly elevated his college years to a focal point of his campaign. “I went through it at Penn State,” he said Sunday. “You talk to most kids who go to college who are conservatives, and you are singled out, you are ridiculed.” He added that he “went through a process where I was docked for my conservative views.”

As it turned out, I had spent much of the past week talking to people from Santorum’s past, including several of his college friends and professors. One of the professors I had been speaking topolitical scientist Bob O’Connor, who taught Santorum in four different classesthought his allegation was absurd. “He really has a rich fantasy life,” O’Connor told me yesterday via email. “PSU in the 1970s was not exactly Berkeley. I resent this sort of accusation [that] I and my colleagues graded students on the basis of their political attitudes. Ridiculous.”

But whether or not Santorum received lower grades because of his conservatism, there remains the broader question of what his college years were really like. Recently, O’Connor gave me a piece of evidence that bears on this question: a 17-page term paper Santorum wrote during his senior year, which O’Connor oversaw as part of an independent study. (You can read the whole thing here.)

The paper was about the rising influence of political action committees (PACs) in Pennsylvania politics. Santorum and his co-author interviewed dozens of Congressmen, staffers, and political operatives to produce a survey of PACs’ goals, operations, and impact. Their findings included: “The money, potential manpower, and, in some cases, political expertise that PACs provide can decide who wins an election. This is a high trump that the lobbyist for the parent organization can and will play to enhance his position with a legislator.” The effect of PACs on legislation was currently minimal, Santorum and his partner concluded, but the potential impact was huge: “It is our belief that with the advent of the independent candidate and voter, and the resulting decline of the party system, this state seems destined to be increasingly influenced by special interests.” Their conclusion seems to warn that this will not be a good development for democracy: “Efforts of groups like Common Cause attack only the symtoms of the real problem at hand, the survival of the political system as we know it,” they argued. “It will take a change in the attitudes of Pennsylvanians to reverse this movement. The day of interest group pluralism is dawning in Pennsylvania.”

The tone of the paper is mostly restrained and methodical, though in a few cases what sounds like it could be a hint of Santorum’s overly dramatic rhetorical styletoday his political signatureseems to come through. (“A PAC must neither be a political whore, selling itself to winning candidates, nor, a political martyr, dying on the cross of ideological purity,” reads one passage.)

But more significantly, the paper, with its detailed discussion of the process of politics, is arguably the latest confirmation of something that the media has lately begun to discover, or rather rediscover, about Santorum: The man who is arguably America’s foremost culture warrior wasfor much of his early career, including his four years at Penn Stateless an ideologue than a political tactician.

This was one of the themes of a 1995 Philadelphia magazine piece, which abounded with evidence that Santorum came late to the hyper-conservative wing of the GOP. That piece was recently given new life by The Huffington Post, which reminded readers of the article’s rather shocking quote from Santorum: “I was basically pro-choice all my life, until I ran for Congress.” It was also one of the themes of a Philadelphia City Paper article from 2005, in which a friend from college, Phil English (later a congressman from Pennsylvania), said, “He was outspoken and aggressive but had a populist approachless about issues and more about getting people involved.” The article quoted Tom Feeney, also a college friend (and later a congressman from Florida), to similar effect. “He had Republican values,” Feeney said. “But it’s not like he was running around leading conservative jihads or anything.” And Santorum himself admitted as much to NPR this past May, saying that his early interest in politics wasn’t mainly a matter of ideology. “I was generally conservative, I was generally Republican,” he said. “But I was more of a political operative than I was someone who had strong convictions about issues.” 

My own conversations with people who knew Santorum in college support this view. Bob O’Connorwho in 1994 told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “I have never had a student so blindly ambitious”told me, “He was a very memorable student because he was an unusual one.” Even in policy-oriented classes, like American Local Government and Administration, “he didn’t ask a whole lot of questions, or talk, about policy and policy positions and what would work best. He did ask an unusual amount about what policies would be more popular, rather than engage in debate about trade-offs, and what would be more effective, and why.”

Santorum had ended up leading the Penn State College Republicans, thanks in part to a freshman year class (Intro to American Politics) with James Eisenstein. As Santorum tells the story, a requirement of the course was that students either had to work for a political campaign, or buy and read a newspaper every day and critique its political coverage. Santorum jokes that because he was too cheap to purchase a paper daily, he opted to work for a campaign, and picked the Senate bid of “the only guy I’d heard of,” Republican John Heinz.

Eisenstein remembers things slightly differently. “I listed a whole bunch of campaigns, Republican campaigns, Democrat campaigns, candidates at all levels of government, voter registration drivesthere were a whole lot of choices,” he told me. “But one day, a student, this is Rick, comes up to me after class and says, ‘I want to work on Heinz’s Senate campaign on campus, but there isn’t a campaign on campus.’ He was clearly frustrated.” Eisenstein encouraged Santorum to start one, and Santorum did: He called the Heinz campaign in Harrisburg, presented his mission, and within weeks was blanketing the campus with Heinz campaign posters.

His energy caught the eye of the national College Republican organization. Sometime after the Heinz campaign, the College Republicans dispatched Englishtheir Pennsylvania chairmanto Penn State to convince Santorum to set up a permanent campus arm (it had been defunct for some time). English found out where Santorum lived, knocked on the door of his dormitory, and made his pitch. “He was immediately interested,” English recalls. The two had a 45-minute conversation, in which English remembers Santorum asking a lot of questions about how Republicans could better target students who weren’t interested in the GOP. Ultimately, Santorum committed to reinvigorating the Penn State chapter of the College Republicans. “I don’t think he put a premium on social issues the way he [later] did,” English recalls today. “I think in broad strokes he was conservative, but he was not strongly ideological.”

Tom Feeney notes that Santorum became the go-to guy at Penn State for state-level Republican candidates looking for college canvassers and phone bank volunteers; but he says his interest was more in political maneuvering than in policy. “Rick remained more of a strategist, consultant, and operative than necessarily passionate about issues,” Feeney told me. “I was more of a philosophical conservative, a free market advocate … whereas Rick was more interested in microtargeting, how to speak to specific voters on specific issues. For a young guy, he was very focused on politics. He wasn’t leading any cutting-edge far-right conservative movement. He was a strategist and tactician.”

When I spoke to O’Connor, he elaborated on a story NPR had mentioned back in May. Once, he said, “Rick asked me, would he do better as a Republican or a Democrat? I said Republican, given that back then, your ambitious and bright students were not Republicans.” O’Connor added that he does not believe Santorum would be a liberal Democrat today if he had responded differently; it was already clear that he at least leaned right. When I asked why he thought Santorum had bothered to ask the question in that case, O’Connor said he didn’t know. “I guess you’d have to ask him,” he replied. (The Santorum campaign did not respond when I contacted them about this article.)

The side of Santorum that came through most clearly at Penn Statethe side that cared more about politics than about ideologywould eventually go into eclipse as he became something of a national spokesman for the Christian right; but that side of him continued to be visible for years after he left college. Charlie Kelly, who worked as an attorney at the same law firm as Santorum, told me, “I’ve always been, as his life has gone on, much more engaged by Santorum the campaigner than Santorum the politician.” Kelly remembers clearly the night Santorum told him he was running for Congressa race that he won in 1990. “He had this big grin on his face,” he says. “He was so happy, contemplating the campaign he was going to run. Over the years, I’ve never seen him so happy as when he’s on a campaign.” 

Molly Redden is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.

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