“I want to contribute to the world of ideas.” That was how Rick Santorum envisioned his political future back in 2007, two months after losing his Pennsylvania Senate seat by 18 points. The sentiment may have sounded strange coming from a Republican best known for his in-your-face social conservatism—the guy who chalked up the Catholic Church’s abuse scandal to Boston’s “cultural liberalism” and suggested that gay marriage could usher in “man-on-dog” relationships. Yet there he was, trying to steer his career in a more contemplative direction, joining the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC) as a senior fellow, where he hoped to delve deeper into foreign policy questions. “I know that I’m not the foremost scholar in the world,” he conceded to National Review, “but I can offer a lot of ideas and help put together a communications strategy to describe the threats we face.”
And, so, over the past four years at EPPC, Santorum has been busy churning out blog posts, columns, and policy speeches warning about radical Islamic bogeymen lurking everywhere (he frequently uses the phrase “the gathering storm,” a nod to Winston Churchill’s memoir of the same title). The new gig has involved lecturing about terrorism on college campuses around the country, bemoaning the fact that few students know the difference between, say, Sunnis and Shia. True, his work isn’t exactly Foreign Affairs material, and more often resembles 2003-vintage war-blogging: A recent post on Iran cobbles together links on the dangers of the regime, throws in a breezy summary (“We had better believe Iran is at the top of the list, just chomping at the bit to seize power”), and quotes a New York Post columnist chiding the Obama administration for not “having its Middle East act together.” Yet it’s not surprising to see Santorum striving to be seen as a thinker—he’s long aspired to do just that. His 2006 book, It Takes a Family, got attention for its aggressive stink bombs (at one point, he accuses feminists of launching a “misogynistic crusade”), but it also revealed Santorum to be one of the few conservatives seriously pondering how best to tackle poverty.
As Santorum prepares for a likely presidential run—he’s staffing up and making pilgrimages to New Hampshire—those close to him say that he’d like to become known for his more substantive side. “My sense is that the caricature that Democrats beat up on in 2006 is not the Santorum we’d see,” says Phil English, a former Republican Pennsylvania congressman. “He’s been reinventing himself.” In theory, Santorum should be a formidable candidate in the GOP primary. He is endlessly energetic, knows how to fund-raise, and has good ties with the establishment (before his loss, after all, he was the number-three Republican in the Senate). And evangelical voters still adore him, which is always an asset in early primary states like Iowa and South Carolina.
There’s just one hitch: Virtually no one—save for tweedy columnist George Will—takes Santorum’s presidential aspirations seriously. And it’s not just the senator’s Google problem. (In 2003, after Santorum’s “man-on-dog” comment, columnist Dan Savage proposed a new definition for “santorum”—“the frothy mixture of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex”—and put it on a much-linked website. When you search for “Santorum,” it’s still the first hit.) It’s more the fact that, despite the new Santorum’s best efforts to be a player in the intellectual arena, the old Santorum keeps getting in the way.
Santorum has always been known for his brash manner. “Santorum? Isn’t that Latin for asshole?” Bob Kerrey reportedly fumed after mere weeks of serving in the Senate together. For his part, Santorum seems continually surprised that people might take his words—like his suggestion in 2005 that residents of New Orleans should have been penalized for staying in the city before Katrina-seriously. A Philadelphia City Paper writer once asked him if he was aware that his rhetorical grenades, particularly his comments about gays, hurt people. Santorum brushed off the suggestion, saying, “People have to remember that politics isn’t personal. It’s just not personal.”
Since he left the Senate, Santorum has not lost his talent for the incendiary. His most notorious comments have often come in off-the-cuff remarks. But even his prepared speeches contain plenty of kindling. Here he is, recently, on health care: “If we don’t repeal Obamacare, America as we know it is over.” Or this, from a February event in South Carolina: “The idea that the Crusades and the fight of Christendom against Islam is somehow an aggression on our part is absolutely anti-historical. And that is what the perception is by the American left who hates Christendom.” He caused yet another flap when he compared abortion to slavery. Of Obama’s pro-choice policies, he said, “I find it almost remarkable for a black man to say, ‘No, we are gonna decide who are people and who are not people.’” While this trope has existed among the Christian right for some time, it took Santorum to catapult it into the political conversation. And his barbs aren’t limited to Obama. Already, Santorum has attacked fellow GOP presidential-maybe Mitch Daniels for proposing a “truce” on social issues and taken sidelong swipes at Sarah Palin (“What does it mean to be qualified to be president? She is born in this country and she’s the right age. Those are the qualifications”).
Santorum’s allies blame the press for turning the thoughtful politician they know into a walking cartoon. “There’s a tendency to pick out only the harshest statements that he might make in the course of defining an issue in a more substantive way,” says Bob Walker, a former Pennsylvania congressman and friend of Santorum’s. Less-charitable critics counter that Santorum—infused by an unshakeable faith in the rightness of his cause—just can’t help shooting off at the mouth.
At times, Santorum seems self-aware about this tendency. In February, at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Santorum told a crowd of conservatives, “As those of you who have followed my career know, I will answer any question. The last couple of days, that probably wouldn’t have been a good idea to answer every question, but I do!” The crowd chuckled knowingly. Just days before, Santorum had been goaded into yet another feud with Palin. First he had publicly suggested that she had skipped CPAC to make money. Palin fired back on television: “I will not call him the knuckle-dragging Neanderthal that perhaps others would want to call him—I’ll let his wife call him that instead.”
The whole dustup—farcical, over-the-top—offered a revealing glimpse of how a Santorum presidential run might play out. In his CPAC speech, Santorum focused diligently on his policy views, hitting on the economy and national security, and mounted an impassioned defense of traditional family values. But, as he stepped off the stage, he was mobbed by reporters who wanted the latest on his Palin tiff. Had he heard that she called him a Neanderthal? Did he care to fire back? As if recognizing that things had gone far enough, Santorum grimaced uncomfortably and shook his head. “There’s no problem between Sarah Palin and me,” he said. He tried to shift the conversation to the economy, but the questions kept coming. That world of ideas was awfully far away.
Bradford Plumer is an associate editor at The New Republic. This article originally ran in the March 24, 2011, issue of the magazine.