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Biography inspires many a presidential campaign, but exploiting the candidate’s life story is never without risk. While Rick Santorum uses his coal-mining roots to draw a striking contrast with the awkward one-percenter Mitt Romney, he can hardly claim to be the tribune of the working class. Indeed, he insists that “there are no classes in America” and accused Romney of indulging in “class warfare” merely for mentioning the “middle class.” He boasts of his low ratings from labor and vows to outlaw public employee unions.

Santorum now portrays himself, with no small assistance from the campaign press corps, as the candidate of the Republican common man, the white working class conservative, who pays his taxes (however grudgingly) and seeks to save manufacturing jobs. But during all his years in Congress, his scores on labor and job issues rarely scored above 14 percent, since he usually rejected increases in the minimum wage or cutting tax breaks for companies that sent American factories offshore. Although his Republican adversaries now correctly accuse him of casting a few votes in favor of higher wages, he explains those as unavoidable political compromises with his deep ideological aversion to unions.

There is no reason to assume that Santorum is any less a servant of big money than Mr. Big Money himself, Mitt Romney. While still in the Senate, he maintained a “leadership PAC” that he rather misleadingly named “America’s Foundation,” which served as a conduit for large contributions from corporate donors who wanted him to grease legislation for them. Most leadership PACs make donations to other politicians as a means of securing power and influence for their sponsors, but America’s Foundation served as a blatant slush fund for Santorum, with a huge proportion of its funds spent on personal expenses, restaurant bills, and credit cards. This operation was staffed by lobbyists and financed by companies that benefited directly from legislation pushed by the senator – sometimes sending big checks within days of passage of their pet bills.

As a Senator, he cultivated close relationships with the same kind of financiers with whom he now seeks to contrast himself. For instance, the suburban Virginia McMansion that the Santorums call home, subject of his recent complaints about its diminished value, was purchased with the help of a “private bank” in Philadelphia, against the bank’s own rules for providing mortgages solely to its investment clients. That was a curious deal, but not nearly as curious as the dubious “charity” that Santorum operated alongside his PAC – or the bills he pushed for tobacco and liquor interests while receiving large donations from their lobbyists. The most intriguing of all these deals was a coal-to-diesel plant for which Santorum helped to obtain $100 million in Energy Department subsidies – the same kind of “socialist” legislation he now denounces as a reborn Tea Party conservative.
All of that is why the watchdogs at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington listed Santorum as one of the four most corrupt Senators in 2006 – and why the Washington Post editorially mocked his role as chair of a “lobbying reform” effort for the Senate Republicans that same year, from which he quickly stepped down.

When Santorum lost his Senate seat in 2006, the most salient issue was his support of the Bush plan to privatize Social Security, in an ambitious scheme that would have siphoned a trillion dollars away from retirees, widows, and orphans to Wall Street bankers. Pennsylvania voters understood why that was a raw deal – and why any Senator who backed it was no friend of working families.

 

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House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, left, and former President Donald Trump.

Photo by Kevin McCarthy (Public domain)

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