By Paul Harris, Saturday 25 February 2012
Few American presidential campaigns have ever adopted a totem as unlikely as the sweater vest. But Rick Santorum, the far-right social conservative now topping national polls in the Republican presidential nomination race, has embraced the unfashionable, dorky item of sleeveless knitwear with a fervour his religious-minded supporters must appreciate.
In last week’s televised Arizona debate, at which the surging Santorum was suddenly the centre of attention, he appeared wearing a sombre suit. But when it was over, off came the jacket and, lo, a sweater vest was revealed in all its woollen glory.
In many ways, it is the perfect image for Santorum. It is an item of clothing that exudes a certain middle-class, middle-American earnest safeness. It reeks of slightly fusty middle age. It reinforces the idea that Santorum, with his ready smile and boring haircut, is just another harmless, goofy white guy from the American heartland. His understanding of the world might be simplistic but he surely means no harm. No wonder that his campaign has embraced the sweater vest so wholeheartedly, as have a legion of his supporters. Santorum aides wear them embroidered with the campaign’s logo. There is a Facebook page for them and a fans’ YouTube video called “Sleeves Slow Me Down” featuring endless shots of a sweater vest-clad Santorum mixed with slogans about his policies.
But in person, the man behind the sweater vest starts to emerge as a rather different creature. First of all, Santorum, aged 53, is no simple Midwestern naif. At campaign stops, whether addressing a handful of farmers in rural Iowa or a big campaign rally in Texas, he is an eloquent speaker whose command of facts and figures is impressive.
Whether one agrees with his policies, he is fluent, forceful and often funny. Which should not really surprise anyone. After all, despite some of the more eccentric elements of this year’s Republican race, running for president is one of the most difficult things to do in the world and Santorum has done it the old school way. With little name recognition and even less cash, he stumped his way through the vital early voting state of Iowa for months and months on end. He never gave up. Nor did he give up later in New Hampshire, South Carolina or Florida. His faith was finally rewarded with a trio of wins earlier this month that anointed him the main opponent to front-runner Mitt Romney. His long quest had shown that beneath the sweater vest was a politician made of solid, untiring steel who had doggedly stuck to both his cause and his beliefs.
Those beliefs now deserve some serious examination, though. For the truth is that Santorum is one of the most socially conservative politicians to have risen to the top of American politics in recent times. In an age of extremism in the Republican party, where almost everyone, but especially Romney, has had to tack to the right, Santorum does not have to budge an inch. He has been on the right for a very long time. It is his home turf. Santorum’s social conservatism, born from his deep and devout Catholic faith, knows few bounds. He believes the use of contraception is wrong, essentially meaning he believes sex is solely about reproduction. He believes rape victims who become pregnant should have their babies. He is firmly against gay marriage, believing it “ungodly”, and once compared homosexuality to having sex with dogs.
He has talked openly about his belief in Satan and how the “father of lies” is attacking America. His views on the challenge of radical Islam take few prisoners. He believes that the US should be willing to strike Iran to stop it getting nuclear weapons. Global warming is based on junk science. On economics, he celebrates inequality. He has called American colleges “indoctrination mills” that pursue a liberal agenda and try to get Christian students to shed their faith.
In short, Santorum is an old-fashioned culture warrior made flesh. Whereas Romney squirms and writhes in his efforts to work out what social conservatives want him to believe, Santorum just speaks his vision of the truth. On social issues, he is as authentic as they come. He is the real deal.
Social conservatism springs from his background. Santorum was born in 1958 to a blue-collar family descended from Italian immigrants. He was born in Virginia but grew up in the hard-scrabble town of Butler in Pennsylvania’s coal country. On the stump, Santorum frequently cites his grandfather, who worked in the mines until he was in his 70s. He taught him the values of honest work. His father, Aldo, was a psychologist working for the local Veterans Administration hospital, and his mother, Catherine, was a nurse. Their household was modest in means, but not poor. But it was very Catholic. Going to church was simply part of life.
But Santorum did not just grow up devout – he also grew up competitive. His brother, Dan, once told an interviewer that his sibling was hyper-competitive at childhood games such as chess and baseball. “He’s not a quitter,” Dan said, which is an assessment that any observer of the 2012 campaign would happily agree with. He earned a school nickname, “Rooster”, that referred not just to a tuft of unruly hair, but his outspoken conservative opinions and beliefs.
As an adult, Santorum practised what he preached. Not for Santorum the Newt Gingrich-style late conversion while already on his third wife. No, Santorum met and married Karen Garver while she was a law student and he was recruiting interns for the law firm he had joined after graduating from law school. They married in 1990 and are the picture of solidarity. She gave up her career and became a homemaker. They have seven children, one of whom was born with a serious genetic disorder, who are home-schooled. Some of them appear at campaign events with their father, reinforcing the happy family image. But it is a picture that masks genuine tragedy. A son, Gabriel, was born prematurely in 1996 and died shortly after birth.
Santorum’s first job may have been in the law but it did not hold him long. He had been involved in Republican politics while at university in Pennsylvania and then got into state politics before deciding to run for Congress in 1990. He won, at the age of 32, and rapidly carved out a name for himself as a rising young star of the Christian right. But it wasn’t just social issues that aroused his ire. As a member of the “Gang of Seven”, he worked to expose financial scandals in Congress. By 1995, he had upgraded to a Pennsylvania Senate seat, where he continued his rise, becoming a favourite of American evangelical leaders.
However, the wheels came off his career in 2006, when he lost a re-election fight. In a bitterly fought campaign, in which he was seen as simply too extreme for many Pennsylvanian voters, Santorum was roundly defeated by his Democrat opponent in one of the biggest losses in Senate history for an incumbent. It looked like the end of his career. Indeed, when he first began exploring his 2012 run, he was seen as a hopeless outsider.
Throughout 2011, little happened to change that opinion. He wandered from small Iowa town to small Iowa town drawing tiny crowds. At televised debates, he got little airtime. Other candidates got their moments in the sun as options to Romney. But they faded and Santorum remained. He eventually fought Romney to a virtual draw in Iowa and then hung on through January. Now he is at the front of the great game. On Tuesday, Romney’s home state of Michigan will go to the polls. Santorum is neck and neck there.
Then, on 6 March, comes Super Tuesday, when 10 more states start voting. In the topsy-turvy Republican race, it is perfectly possible that when all the smoke clears Santorum will still be standing. He might even be in front. Of course, that pleases Democrats. One can just imagine the joy in the White House at the prospect of fighting Santorum. Conventional wisdom has it that his extremism cannot defeat Obama.
The vital middle ground will shy away from Santorum. Most Americans, in the end, do not want someone to tell them who they can or cannot have sex with. Or how. They do not want to bow down to the church. Or bomb Iran. Or demonise their gay friends and neighbours. They do not want to put on a sweater vest or even take seriously someone who wears them. The conventional wisdom is probably right. Santorum will likely be beaten by Romney. If not, Obama will maul Santorum badly in a election and secure a second term. Santorum should soon disappear.
But that is what the political classes have been saying all along. They said it after his 2006 loss. They said it when he announced his 2012 run. They said it after New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida. They are saying it now. And Santorum, with the stubborn, unerring faith that has marked his whole life, is still there.