It has been hard not to experience the election as a brute-force clash between two armies struggling over terrain their soldiers have come to see, inevitably—they are at war, they are exhausted—as the location of the battle, but not its purpose. The nation is where the contest takes place; you can forget, in the fight, that its actual future is what’s being fought for.
But here’s an exception: the state of Pennsylvania, which has been this year a bright patch of meaning. Its U.S. Senate contest has been the great race of the cycle, the one about which conservatives in their hearts most care. And not only conservatives, but those who know, for whatever reason and in whatever way, that there is something truly at stake here, something beyond mere red team and blue.
That would be Sen. Rick Santorum. The sense among so many people—including politicians and journalists—is that the Senate needs his sort, his kind.
The other day I called a former senator, a crusty old moderate Republican, and asked him if he liked Mr. Santorum. “No,” he said, “I love him.” When Mr. Santorum was new to the Senate, in 1995, he, the elder, seasoned legislator tried to mentor him. He wanted to help him survive. Mr. Santorum was grateful and appreciative, “but he kept speaking his mind!” The former senator: “The political scientists all say to be honest and stand for principle, that’s what people want. And he was exactly that, and he’s about to get his head handed to him.” He chuckled then with what seemed the reflexive pleasure of one pol about to see another take a tumble. Then he stopped. It was sad, he said.
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Being a U.S. senator is a hard job. I mean this not sarcastically. John F. Kennedy once observed that it carries within it an always potentially conflicting dynamic. He was a senator from Massachusetts, he said, there to look after the needs and interests of his state. “Who will speak for Massachusetts if her own senators do not?” At the same time, look at his title: United States senator from Massachusetts. He was a member of a deliberative body whose duty it was to look, always, to the national interest. Senators could not only be “special pleaders” for “state or section.” He was there, in the end, to speak for America, to address issues greater and higher than those of region, state and party.
Rick Santorum’s career (two Senate terms, before that two in the House) suggests he has thought a great deal about the balance, and concluded that in our time the national is the local. Federal power is everywhere; so are the national media. (The biggest political change since JFK’s day is something he, 50 years ago, noted: the increasing nationalization of everything.) And so he has spoken for, and stood for, the rights of the unborn, the needs of the poor, welfare reform when it was controversial, tax law to help the family; against forcing the nation to accept a redefining of marriage it does not desire, for religious freedom here and abroad, for the helpless in Africa and elsewhere. It is all, in its way, so personal. And so national. He has breached the gap with private action: He not only talks about reform of federal law toward the disadvantaged, he hires people in trouble and trains them in his offices.
Santorum issues are hot issues, and raise passions pro and con.
His style has been to face what his colleagues hope to finesse. His opponent, reading the lay of the land, has decided the best way to win is to disappear. He does not like to debate. Mr. Santorum has taken to carrying an empty chair and merrily addressing it.
Mr. Santorum has been at odds with the modernist impulse, or liberalism, or whatever it now and fairly should be called. Most of his own impulses—protect the unprotected, help the helpless, respect the common man—have not been conservative in the way conservative is roughly understood, or portrayed, in the national imagination. If this were the JFK era, his politics would not be called “right wing” but “progressive.” He is, at heart, a Catholic social reformer. Bobby Kennedy would have loved him.
This week I caught up with Mr. Santorum by phone as his van drove east along the Pennsylvania Turnpike toward Philadelphia.
He sounded joyful. He said this campaign was “the hardest and most wonderful ordeal I’ve ever been through.” He said he’s been taken aback by all the prayers, by all the people who’ve come from so far to help him. “I’ve never had that before. I’ve never had it. I met a guy from Seattle, and a guy from Waco, Texas—they came in for a week just to help me. We have 14 kids coming in from Great Britain!” He said, “Wonderful things are happening.”
He sounded startled. And moved. And hopeful. Which is a funny way for a guy down 10 points to feel.
He told me something is happening. And I hope he’s right. Because the U.S. Senate is both an institution and a collection of human beings, and it needs his kind.
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I end with a story too corny to be true, but it’s true. A month ago Mr. Santorum and his wife were in the car driving to Washington for the debate with his opponent on “Meet the Press.” Their conversation turned to how brutal the campaign was, how hurt they’d both felt at all the attacks. Karen Santorum said it must be the same for Bob Casey and his family; they must be suffering. Rick Santorum said yes, it’s hard for them too. Then he said, “Let’s say a Rosary for them.” So they prayed for the Caseys as they hurtled south.
A friend of mine called them while they were praying. She told me about it later, but didn’t want it repeated. “No one would believe it,” she said.
But I asked Mr. Santorum about it. Sure, he said, surprised at my surprise. “We pray for the Caseys every night. We know it’s as hard for them as it is for us.”
Personally I’ll shed no tear for the careerists of either party who win or lose, nor for the BlackBerryed gargoyles in the second row of the SUV who tell them how to think and where to stand. That means this election night will be, for me, a dry-eyed affair.
But if Rick Santorum goes down to the defeat all expect, I will feel it. Like the crusty old moderate Republican, I know a national loss when I see one.