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Rick Santorum Substitutes Faith for Policy in South Carolina | The Nation

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Ben Adler

Ben Adler

 The 2012 election, Republican politics and conservative media.

Rick Santorum Substitutes Faith for Policy in South Carolina

Myrtle Beach

At the Faith & Freedom Coalition candidate forum in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, on Monday, Rick Santorum’s introduction included a strange biographical note: “Rick Santorum is the only candidate running who was named by Time magazine as one of twenty-five most influential evangelicals in the US.” Santorum is Catholic, not evangelical.

But, as Santorum explained when he took the stage, evangelical experts identified Santorum in interviews as their “point man on Capitol Hill” in 2005, when the Time article ran. “We don’t look at what divides us but what unites us; issues unite us as believers,” said Santorum. “Of the twenty-five on that list, I was the only non-pastor on that list.”

Perhaps Santorum missed his true calling. Campaigning in South Carolina, Santorum has spoken about political issues as matters of theology rather than public policy. Taking a very different tack than he did in New Hampshire, Santorum is reminding voters of the polarizing social conservative whom Pennsylvania voters drummed out of office. That persona may not play well in more secular surroundings, but Santorum is hoping that it will catapult him to victory in the deeply conservative Palmetto State.

Monday afternoon Santorum chatted with Frank Luntz and Lindsay Ferrier of the website Café Mom in front of a small crowd of mothers and children in a coffee shop in Myrtle Beach. This is the same forum at which Newt Gingrich got teary discussing his mother in Iowa. It makes sense: questions from the moderators play to the worst stereotypes about “mommy politics.” They are all about the personal and emotional aspects of campaigning. “What was the hardest moment on the campaign trail?” Asked Luntz. “You think mothers should stay at home?” Asked Ferrier. Santorum interjected that he has no preference between mothers and fathers staying at home, before turning to his wife Karen, who quit her job to raise their children.

The Santorums had plenty to say about the benefits and challenges of spending time raising your kids, and how that should be socially recognized as much as work outside the home. They did not, however, even acknowledge that their domestic ideal is simply unaffordable for many families, much less discuss what public policy solutions they would advocate to make it feasible for more people. In the socialist hellholes of Europe, parents get to spend considerably more time with their newborns, because the law requires paid parental leave. Santorum did not mention that. He presumably would oppose such a law as meddlesome governmental interference in private enterprise. That’s a legitimate fiscally conservative viewpoint, but one that conflicts with his professed commitment to having a stay-at-home parent in every household.

The questions from the audience were more substantive, but began with a relevant factoid about the questioner’s personal life—a format that was no doubt encouraged, or even required—by the organizers.

The closest the Santorums came to a Gingrich moment was when a mother of a child with a congenital birth defect asked about what they would do for children with disabilities. The Santorums’ youngest daughter was born with a chromosomal disorder. They spoke movingly about their love for their daughter and Karen Santorum welled up. But as they went on, it became apparent that Rick Santorum has no policies to help the disabled. He argues that the families that can afford to should do everything they can to care for their children. But what about those who can’t afford to do so?

Santorum offers three options, each more unhelpful than the next. He suggests high-risk pools, state governments stepping into the breach and Medicaid. As president his ability to create high-risk pools would be limited, and he offers no policy proposal on how to create affordable high-risk pools. Nor does Santorum propose a federal program to subsidize state governments’ caring for their most vulnerable citizens. Indeed, state governments are cutting back on spending, and Santorum opposes aid to states to alleviate some of that pain. Santorum would cut funding for Medicaid and turn into a block grant program. Disability policy advocates and experts say this would be disastrous for the disabled.

Santorum complains that the Affordable Care Act will introduce comparative effectiveness measurements to reduce costs in the healthcare sector. He worries that will mean doctors making decisions not to treat the disabled. Santorum is wildly misrepresenting the purpose of comparative effectiveness research. The idea is to compare which ways of treating a given condition are the most effective and which are the most cost-effective. The purpose is to improve care and to reduce costs of treating patients, but only if you get the same medical outcome, or a better one. Nowhere in the law does it say that any bureaucrat should decide which illnesses are worth treating in the first place. Santorum is basically repeating a less catchy version of the “death panels” lie.

What the Affordable Care Act actually would do is require insurance companies to offer policies to everyone, regardless of whether they have a prior condition, and to cover the costs that may arise from such a condition. That, obviously, would be a boon to the disabled, who by definition have a prior condition. That, along with elements such as expanding Medicaid access, is why disability rights advocates strongly support the law.

Perhaps the most hostile thing Santorum said about disability rights came Monday night in the Fox News debate in Myrtle Beach. After saying he would now repeal No Child Left Behind, which he voted for, Santorum added, “We should repeal all of the federal government’s role in education.” A major component of the federal government’s role in education is the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, which requires schools to meet the needs of children with disabilities and provides funding for doing so.

In place of substantive discussion of these actual disability issues on Monday afternoon, the Santorums discussed how their religious fervor helped them through the days after their daughter’s birth. “When we got the diagnosis I was very angry… I was never going to leave my faith,” said Karen Santorum. “I love the Lord.”

Santorum executed a similar dodge on gay rights. A woman from Greenville, South Carolina, said she supports Santorum, but her youngest son is gay. Her son has no problem with Santorum’s opposition to gay marriage, she claims, but he hears from his friends that Santorum hates gays.

Karen Santorum reassured her. “It’s very sad what gay activists have done to Rick: they’ve vilified him. Rick doesn’t hate anyone. He just said [gay] marriage shouldn’t happen.” Karen Santorum even had the audacity to accuse said “gay activists” of “backyard bullying” of her husband. Apparently, the irony that denying certain people equality under the law is bullying did not occur to her.

Then Rick Santorum explicated why he opposes gay marriage. What he did not address is his stance on other gay rights issues. Santorum opposes letting gays serve openly in the military and he opposes protecting gays from discrimination in the workplace. And while he might not hate gays, he’s at least willing to implicitly dog-whistle to those who do. When speaking to the Faith & Freedom Coalition later Monday afternoon, Santorum invoked the specter of “immoral activity,” without specifying what such activity is, leaving it to the imagination of a group Southern social conservatives. What do you think they were imagining?

Santorum’s new favorite talking point, which he trotted out at the coffee shop, the Faith & Family event and in the debate, is theology disguised as social policy. Santorum complains that the Obama administration does not allow organizations receiving federal funding to encourage young people to marry or to remain abstinent. Citing a study from Brookings, Santorum notes that waiting until you have kids to get married is one of the most important ways you can stay out of poverty.

And he is highly selective even when it comes to the studies he cites. He clearly didn’t read the Brookings report too carefully, because it also notes “the concentration of income and wealth at the very top of the distribution” and “the importance of both personal responsibility and government assistance in helping people get ahead.”

Santorum complains that the Obama administration “is so dogmatic [they] can’t look at evidence. Just because it’s a traditional value [they] have to reject it.” But it is he who ignores the relevant evidence. There are many ways to avoid having children out of wedlock, including using contraception or having an abortion. Santorum opposes the constitutional right to access both of those health services, and in the case of abortion he favors federal and state prohibitions. Would Santorum like it if organizations receiving federal funding counseled pregnant young women to have abortions to stay out of poverty? As far as the evidence goes, abstinence-only education are usually ineffective. Santorum’s priority isn’t keeping people out of poverty; it’s discouraging people from having sex. He is not approaching the problem of poverty or inadequate family planning with an open mind.

It is this sort of imposition of his personal religious values on society as a whole that earned Santorum the endorsement of 150 social conservative leaders on Saturday. And it’s at the root of Santorum’s appeal to many voters. At the coffee chat I met Angela Urkle, a Santorum supporter from Lancaster, South Carolina. She said she supports Santorum because “his beliefs and his values, that’s me.” What beliefs and values? “Religion, family, education.” Desperate to get some specific idea of what tangible policy improvements a President Santorum would offer her, I asked Urkle what aspects of his education policy she likes. “Prayer should be back in school,” she said. “Since we got rid of prayer in school, things have been going downhill.”

Coming on the heels of Santorum’s endorsement by social conservative leaders, Ferrier said, “Some South Carolinians think God may be on your side.” Usually, politicians deflect such questions with Abraham Lincoln’s famous quote that “It is my constant anxiety and prayer that I and this nation should be on the Lord’s side.” But Santorum, as befits a man who is supremely confident that he is on God’s side, didn’t bother with such modesty. Instead, he demurred that “hopefully, God’s on all of our sides.” Karen Santorum added, “We pray for our opponents in every campaign, Republican and Democrat.” Let’s hope their prayers are answered.

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