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OpinionNation: Rick Santorum: Defender of America's Working People? | The Nation

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OpinionNation: Rick Santorum: Defender of America's Working People?

Editor's Note: Heading into the New Hampshire primary, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum has drawn plenty of criticism from progressives for his stance on gay rights and contraception. Yet his calls for a renewal of the American manufacturing base—and his votes in Congress opposing free trade—have piqued liberals' interest. Does Santorum represent a branch of conservatism that better defends working Americans? John Nichols suggests he might. Or is his populism all rhetoric and no policy? Ben Adler argues it is.

Santorum Knows How to Talk the Talk, But Doesn't Walk the Walk

If Democrats are smart, they will learn from Santorum that it is important to talk about manufacturing and industrial policy.

by John Nichols on January 10, 2012

Rick Santorum is to industrial policy what Dick Cheney is to foreign policy: A Republican who knows how to discuss the issues but who does not have any answers. As my friend and colleague Ben Adler suggests, his platform is nothing to get excited by. Yet, Santorum has been helped by his focus on manufacturing issues.

The question is: "Why?" The answer has to do with where he came from.

Santorum learned to play politics in the industrial heartlands of western Pennsylvania, where I covered him as an uncharacteristically successful Republican contender for the U.S. House and then the U.S. Senate.  In the steel towns around Pittsburgh, Democrats with union backing usually won. But Republicans could upset the political calculus, if they figured out how to connect with blue-collar workers who were socially conservative but economically populist. Santorum was such a Republican. He broke with his party now and again on big issues -- particularly with his 1993 vote against the North American Free Trade Agreement -- but his real break was rhetorical. Santorum understood that he needed to talk about maintaining manufacturing. And he did. That's an important part of the explanation for how he beat a union-backed Democratic incumbent in a 1990 race for a U.S. House seat representing a district where the Democrats had historically won over 70 percent of the vote Four years later, it helped him beat U.S. Senator Harris Wofford, a union-backed Democrat who also happened to be one of the most honorable public servants of the era. And it helped him retain the seat in 2000, a year that saw Democrat Al Gore win Pennsylvania. Only in 2006, when he was challenged by Bob Casey, a popular Democrat who mixed social conservatism with more genuinely pro-worker and pro-union policies, did Santorum finally lose.

Fast forward six years, and Santorum is running for the presidency. His first test is in Iowa, a state with a significant manufacturing base that has been battered by bad trade policies and neglect on the part of Republican and Democratic administrations. Santorum runs as a social conservative, to be sure, but he is not the only—or even the most prominent—social conservative on the ballot. What distinguishes Santorum is his tendency to address concerns about the status of U.S. manufacturing. Santorum doesn't say much of consequence—he's for some tax breaks for multinational corporations and a little skeptical on trade issues—but the other Republicans devote little or not attention  to industry or industrial concerns. This is not so much a strategy as a default position. But it helps. Santorum wins factory and packinghouse towns such as Newton and Ottumwa, and runs better than expected in manufacturing centers such as Dubuque and the Quad Cities. I know those towns, and I know a lot of the voters who live in them. The ones who voted for Santorum were social conservatives backing a social conservatives. But they has plenty of social-conservative options. What swayed them to Santorum was that, in addition to his anti-choice and anti-gay rights positions, he talked about manufacturing.

When I talked with Iowans who backed Santorum, I was struck by the number of folks who said that they were impressed by the simple fact that the former senator  bothered to talk about industrial issues. He "went there," while other Republicans did not—or, at the least, did not seem sincere.

Santorum's policies were insufficient. But his focus was sufficient to help get him through the Iowa fight.

It won't be sufficient in New Hampshire, where Santorum's social conservatism is too extreme for the electorate. But it might help in South Carolina, which is shaping up as Santorum's last best hope.

What should we make of this? If Democrats are smart, they will note that it is important to talk about manufacturing and industrial policy. Voters are hungry for references to their concerns. But they are even hungrier for a policy shift that might begin the renewal of American manufacturing. Santorum does not offer that. Unfortunately, my friend Leo Gerard, the international president of the United Steelworkers union, is right when he says with regard to Santorum's "plan": "This is nothing more that smoke and mirrors. This is nothing more than hiding the pea.”

 

Santorum's Empty Rhetoric of Economic Populism

Liberals should not fall for Rick Santorum’s phony presentation as someone who cares about—or would do anything for—working-class Americans.

by Ben Adler on January 5, 2012

My colleague John Nichols is right to frame Rick Santorum’s appeal to working-class voters as primarily a question of electoral strategy rather than substance. And he’s also right to acknowledge that Santorum’s economics policies are mostly generic right-wing conservatism.

But Nichols still gives Santorum too much credit. Nichols writes, “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.” The problem is a category error. Nichols praises Santorum for departing from GOP orthodoxy a handful of times to vote against free trade agreements. But that is of a piece with Santorum’s false premise about the struggles of working-class Americans, whicih Nichols fails to confront. Santorum’s votes against free trade agreements, like his current proposal to remove corporate income taxes on companies that bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States, rests on the conservative assumption that the only thing government should do for regular Americans is try to boost their employment prospects.

The truth is that overall employment, as well as employment in any given sector, will be determined largely by global macroeconomic forces that are largely beyond the control of the federal government. Automation, for example, means that over the past decade US manufacturing output has remained constant while manufacturing employment has declined by one-third. There’s no government policy that can reverse that trend, nor should there be. Passing or rejecting a specific free trade bill or tax break can only affect manufacturing sector employment at the margins. Nichols praises Santorum for voting for tariffs on foreign steel. Santorum represented the steel-state of Pennsylvania. This is just like Santorum’s penchant for earmarks: politicking to win re-election, and an unprincipled diversion from his general conservatism. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2008 “iron and steel mills and ferroalloy production employed 98,900 workers.” Tweaking those numbers through selectively imposing tariffs does not equal a working-class agenda. And steel is not immune to factors other than foreign competition that will reduce its employment. The same BLS report from 2009 noted, “Employment is expected to continue to decline due to consolidation and further automation of the steelmaking process.”

If you look at a graph of US manufacturing employment over time, you see that it never went much above 19 million jobs. That’s far from a majority of American workers. Right now we’re down around 12 million. Santorum’s efforts to tweak manufacturing employment might be praiseworthy, but they won’t affect the vast majority of Americans in need.

There is much more that the federal government can and should do to aid all Americans in areas where the free market fails them: providing health insurance, good free education, high-quality public transportation, civil rights protection and a clean environment. In the past Santorum showed some interest in a few of these issues: he voted for No Child Left Behind and advocated bringing low-income city residents to jobs in the suburbs. In his campaign’s current incarnation he has tossed all of that aside to appeal to the post–Tea Party Republican electorate. Santorum says NCLB was a mistake, and on issues like transportation he simply says nothing. On other important programs for the poor, working class and middle class—from Social Security to Medicare and Medicaid to food stamps—he proposes the same terrible ideas as Mitt Romney: slash spending, block grant to the states and privatize. Santorum’s working-class posture is a gimmick, and liberals shouldn’t fall for it.

Santorum's Secret: A Jobs and Manufacturing Focus Wins Votes

Unlike other GOP candidates, Santorum talks about renewing US industries, even as the Club for Growth grumbles.

by John Nichols on January 5, 2012

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.

Rick Santorum Is Not a 'Working-Class Candidate'

Conservative commenators and mainstream reporters describing Santorum as an advocate of the working class based solely on his rhetoric, when his actual policies are plutocratic.

by Ben Adler on January 5, 2012

Political reporters and pundits—especially conservatives—often fail to appreciate the distinction between political strategy and substantive policy. That’s why so many conservative media outlets falsely asserted that President Obama was planning to “abandon the working class” when they got wind of a Center for American Progress report laying out how Obama could win re-election without winning the white working class vote. 

Now Rick Santorum is talking about economic opportunity and the importance of manufacturing jobs, so mainstream reporters and conservative commentators have dubbed him a candidate for the working class. Here’s the Washington Post:

In a speech capping off his near-win in the Iowa caucuses Tuesday night, he made plain he wants to introduce another side to New Hampshire voters: Rick Santorum, economic populist.

He insisted that conservatives must make clear they care about the problems of the working-class and not just cut taxes….

He can do it, he said, with a tax plan that eliminates the corporate income tax for manufacturers, in an effort to lure factories back from overseas.

The article describes Santorum’s political strategy to win over working class voters without raising the key question: does Santorum actually propose to do anything that would benefit the working class? No, of course he doesn’t. Santorum’s agenda is an extremely right wing collection of conservative hobbyhorses. Look at Matthew Yglesias’ breakdown Santorum’s 12-point tax plan: They’re a bunch of typical Republican proposals that have no particular relevance for the working poor. His proposals include the usual Republican tax cuts for the rich to incentivize investment and for families to incentivize procreation. There’s no mention of even using tax cuts—such as the Earned Income Tax Credit—to lift working people out of poverty.  

The Post treats a plan to eliminate corporate taxes as a credible plan to heal the economic wounds of working class people without even bothering to ask, much less assess, he would actually impact the average working American. For the vast majority of Americans who no longer work in manufacturing, his plan is quite a bank shot. Santorum’s idea springs from a fundamentally outdated notion of the American economy: that men can work in heavy industry while their wives stay home and raise the kids. That socially traditionalist image is appealing to Santorum, but it’s no longer the world we live in. And it fails to take account of technological changes that have made manufacturing less labor intensive. We are losing manufacturing jobs to more than other countries: automation means that we can produce more goods with fewer workers. By taking Santorum’s strange proposal at face value the Post treats a rather implausible claim as presumptively credible.

Meanwhile, the New York Times‘s duo conservative op-ed columnists Ross Douthat and David Brooks heap praise on Santorum’s supposed concern for the working class. “The former Pennsylvania senator’s emphasis on social mobility, family breakdown and blue-collar struggles spoke more directly to the challenges facing working Americans than any 9-9-9 fantasy or flat-tax gambit,” writes Douthat, who apparently hasn’t actually bothered to look at Santorum’s tax plan.

Brooks devoted an entire column on Tuesday to praising Santorum for speaking for the interests of the Republicans’ largest constituency, the white working class. “The Republicans harvest their votes but have done a poor job responding to their needs…. Enter Rick Santorum…. His economic arguments are couched as values arguments: If you want to enhance long-term competitiveness, you need to strengthen families. If companies want productive workers, they need to be embedded in wholesome communities.” That’s all very sweet, but it’s just empty rhetoric. Brooks fails to identify a single concrete proposal Santorum makes that would do anything tangible for the working class. That’s because Santorum doesn’t have any. So Brooks starts by acknowledging that Republicans cater to that demographic rhetorically but not substantively, and then swoons over Santorum for doing exactly that.

Conservative columnists and reporters like to listen to rhetoric and talk in generalities because it’s easier than actually examining proposals. But it doesn’t take a master’s degree in public policy to see that Santorum’s tax plans are regressive.

For most of the economic challenges facing working Americans, Santorum’s policies are simply generic Republican corporatism. Take health insurance: Santorum would repeal “Obamacare” and do virtually nothing to insure the uninsured or contain costs. He merely offers the same proposals Republicans trot out every four years to please corporate contributors and sound like they have a plan. His scheme—tort reform to reduce the cost of malpractice insurance, allowing insurance across state lines and health savings accounts—would do little to address the problem for people with prior conditions or high health care costs.

When it comes to the other challenges to upward mobility, or even just getting by, that blue collar workers face, Santorum offers nothing, or worse. Say you’re worried about the cost of sending your kids to college: Santorum has literally no policy prescription to address that problem. But his overall promise to cut domestic social spending would presumably mean even less federal help for college tuition. It would also mean less federal help with basic necessities for people who lose their jobs, such as Medicaid and food stamps.

The totality of Santorum’s domestic policy agenda is to cut spending. This shouldn’t even pass for conservative economic populism. I’m willing to concede that one can demonstrate concern for the poor not just by spending more but by proposing to reorient programs to make them more effective or to make their goals empowerment rather than dependency. But Santorum doesn’t have any such ideas; he just wants to steal from the poor to give to the rich. Specifically, he proposes to, “Freeze spending levels for social programs for 5 years such as Medicaid, Housing, Education, Job Training, and Food Stamps, time limit restrictions, and block grant to the States like in Welfare Reform.” Santorum also proposes to cut funding for the National Labor Relations Board as a punitive measure for making a decision he dislikes.

The especially sad irony is that these sorts of spending cuts will save a small amount of money compared to, say, the amount we’ve blown on the Iraq invasion that Santorum supported. The real savings will come from his plan to cut Social Security benefits, raise the retirement age and means-test it, as well as adopting Paul Ryan’s plan to privatize Medicare.

How can Douthat and Santorum claim with a straight face that this constitutes some sort of plan to help the working class? How can news reporters write that Santorum seeks to be the working class candidate without noting that his policies would snatch the social safety net out from under them?

Rick Santorum has nothing to offer the working class except his ideological contention that tax cuts will magically create jobs that pay you enough to meet your needs. If that’s what passes for a working-class candidate in today’s GOP, I’d like to see their idea of an economic royalist.

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