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Santorum Secret: A Jobs and Manufacturing Focus Wins Votes | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Santorum Secret: A Jobs and Manufacturing Focus Wins Votes

Rick Santorum surged from (way) behind to secure a top-position finish in the Iowa caucuses for a lot of reasons: his ability to unite evangelical voters who through most of the campaign had divided their support among multiple candidates; a long-term strategy that saw him visit every Iowa county and personally interact with tens of thousands of likely caucus-goers; his status as a largely unexamined and unbattered “last man standing” alternative to Mitt Romney.

But there was something else that Santorum had going for him.

To a far greater extent than Romney, the venture capitalist who made his money dismantling American factories and offshoring jobs, and to a significantly greater extent than the wonkish Newt Gingrich and the ideologically rigid Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann, Santorum appealed to blue-collar workers and to Iowans who would like to be blue-collar workers. And he’ll do more of that in New Hampshire.

Eschewing predictable “let-the-market-decide” rhetoric about free markets and free trade, Santorum has made proposals for the renewal of American manufacturing an important part of his Iowa agenda. That is not an approach that endears the unexpected contender to the hedge-fund managers and Wall Street speculators who provide so much of the funding not just for Republican candidates but for conservative groups such as the Club for Growth.

But Santorum bet on the appeal of industrial renewal message. And there is good evidence to suggest that it was a smart bet. Santorum won communities such as Newton, a United Auto Workers town that was hit hard by the shuttering of its sprawling Maytag plant, and Ottumwa, a packinghouse town where the United Food and Commercial Workers union has a rich history. These are both communities President Obama has visited since his 2008 election, and they are communities where Obama will do well in 2012. But Santorum made inroads where Romney never will. In Ottumwa-based Wapello County, for instance, while Santorum finished first, Romney ran fifth—behind not just Santorum but Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry. In the Newton area, it was Santorum, then Paul and then Romney.

Santorum did not win every factory town, but he ran strong in them, finishing high on the lists and piling up significant votes in Dubuque, Davenport and other communities with manufacturing and union traditions.

Why? Santorum talked about manufacturing at most stops on the Iowa campaign trail and, while the Santorum literature that Iowans received made the usual social conservative “faith-and-family” appeals, the most detailed section declared: “Rick’s ‘Made in America’ manufacturing plan offers 0% taxes for companies overseas to bring back manufacturing to the U.S. This will dramatically revitalize manufacturing and bring thousands and thousands of jobs [to Iowa communities].”

Santorum’s specific plan is flawed, as is much if his analysis. And it has to be seen in the context of a broader agenda that hugs the fringe of the discourse on a host of social and economic issues, and that embraces jingoism and nuclear brinksmanship as a foreign policy.

But his focus on manufacturing represents smart politics—especially for the first-caucus state of Iowa and the first-primary state of New Hampshire.

While Iowa has a reputation as an agricultural state, it is also a state of farm-implement factories, packinghouses, food processors and machine shops. Iowa ranks among the ten American states that are most dependent on manufacturing for jobs, and many eastern and northern Iowan communities have rich industrial and trade union traditions. Indeed, eastern Iowa cities such as Dubuque and Davenport have a lot in common with the factory towns of battleground states such as Michigan, Iowa and Pennsylvania.

And, as in those states, Iowa has its share of blue-collar conservatives—some so-called “traditional-values” voters, some of what were once referred to as “Reagan Democrats.”

Santorum’s a millionaire who has moved far from his working-class roots, but he knows how to talk to blue-collar conservatives. He used much of his Iowa “victory” speech to reach out to blue-collar workers, with emotional stories about his grandfather, a Pennsylvania miner, and specific references to small towns “that were centered around manufacturing and processing” and to the fact that “those good jobs that built those towns…those jobs slowly, whether it’s in Hamburg, whether it’s in Newton, or any place in between, we found those jobs leaving Iowa.”

When I interviewed Santorum about his focus on renewing American manufacturing, the former Pennsylvania congressman and US senator told me: “My first campaigns were in factory towns, unions towns. I’ve always talked about manufacturing in my campaigns.”

And in some cases, he has gone beyond campaign talk to break with Republican orthodoxy on manufacturing issues. For instance:

1. As a young congressman, Santorum voted in 1993 against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). “NAFTA will produce pockets of winners and losers across the country,” he said at the time. “Our area is unfortunately one of the losers.” Santorum would eventually cast many more votes in favor of free-trade deals than against them, including a 2000 vote in favor of normalizing trade relations with China. But his anti-NAFTA vote parallels the sentiments of a lot of working Americans in factory towns.

2. Santorum was a member of the Senate Steel Caucus, co-sponsored 1999 legislation to impose tariffs on imported steel.

3. In 2005, Senator Santorum backed an amendment to impose a 27.5 percent tariff on all Chinese imports if China didn’t readjust its currency upward.

When he took those positions, Santorum broke with many of his fellow Republicans, and with conservative free-trade orthodoxy.

Santorum recognized early on that not just first-caucus state of Iowa but the first-primary state of New Hampshire were ripe for his manufacturing message.

“Deliver that message in small-town Iowa and guess what makes up small-town Iowa? Manufacturing,” Santorum explained, when asked by an interviewer about why his campaign was doing well in Iowa and why he thought it would do well in New Hampshire. “Guess what makes up Manchester [New Hampshire], Nashua [New Hampshire], go on down the list? It’s manufacturing.”

Unfortunately for Santorum, while his message yielded votes in Iowa, and may yet yield votes in New Hampshire, it is not necessarily going to boost the under-funded candidate’s appeal with the other definitional players in American politics: big donors to Super PACs that are used not merely to advance campaigns but to derail them.

“Some of Santorum’s most anti-growth votes have come on trade issues,” gripes the Club for Growth, one of the most powerful pressure groups for pro-corporate politics. “In perhaps the most important free trade vote of the last generation, Santorum voted against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993, perhaps the most important trade vote cast during his career in Congress.”

Summing up Santorum’s Congressional record, the Club for Growth found evidence of the typically conservative support for school choice, tort reform and tax cuts. No surprise there: Santorum served in the House and Senate as a very conservative Republican. But the group complained about “his penchant for trade protectionism, and his willingness to support large government expansions like the Medicare prescription drug bill and the 2005 Highway Bill,” and fretted that a President Santorum would  resist fail to “political expediency when it comes to economic issues.”

Translation: the Club for Growth is worried that Santorum might actually be sincere when he talks about the need to renew American manufacturing and to help the people who live in the battered factory towns of Iowa and the old mill towns of New Hampshire.

There is no reason to overplay Santorum’s commitments. He is an economic conservative who would side more often with Wall Street than Main Street. But his refusal to completely abandon Main Street has made him an outlier in the 2012 Republican field. And that is one of the reasons why he has survived longer and done better than more prominent contenders who simply do not understand, or do not care, about the collapse of American manufacturing.

Perhaps the Club for Growth is right when it says Santorum is bending to “political expediency” when he talks about renewing manufacturing. But it is a bow that is rooted in reality: there really is a 99 percent out there, and they are not interested in or satisfied with Mitt Romney’s Bain Capitalism. To the extent that Santorum succeeds in presenting even an alternative message, he has the potential to connect with blue-collar conservatives in communities that have been abandoned by presidential contenders and presidents of both parties.

That’s a potential that should concern Santorum’s fellow Republicans. And it should concern Democratic strategists as well. Mitt Romney is not going to appeal to blue-collar voters and working families in hard-hit factory towns. He’s one of the people who hit them. But when Santorum talks about running as “someone who can go out to western Pennsylvania and Ohio and Michigan and Indiana and Wisconsin and Iowa and Missouri and appeal to the voters that have been left behind by a Democratic Party,” he is positioning himself as a very different candidate than Romney and the other Republicans. And that difference explains much of his appeal.

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