Santorum Used To Talk About Homosexuality, Gay Marriage, and Abortion. What Changed?

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Feb. 15 2012 6:14 PM

A Kinder, Gentler Rick Santorum

Now that the man in the vest is surging in the polls, he’s toning down his talk on homosexuality, gay marriage, and abortion. Meet Santorum 2.0.

Republican presidential candidate Sen. Rick Santorum.
Is Rick Santorum downplaying his conservatism?

Stephen Brashear/Getty Images.

On Monday, the gods of campaign scheduling were in full-on prank mode. In Olympia, Wash., Gov. Christine Gregoire signed legislation making hers the seventh state where gays can marry. Less than an hour later, Rick Santorum arrived at the state capital to hobnob with defeated religious leaders. There he was: The sponsor of the Federal Marriage Amendment, the man who’d taken “arrows in the back” to battle gay marriage laws, the guy who was so hated by gay activists that his name had been turned into a frothy sexual slur. What would he say?

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at daveweigel@gmail.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.

He would tell everyone to be respectful and get along.

“There are legitimate reasons that people have to want … to change the law,” he said. “And there are legitimate reasons that people have to want to keep the law in place.” He did not talk about a war on Christianity, or the need to abolish state legislators. “There are ebbs and flows in every battle.”

Later, at a heckler-hassled speech in Tacoma, Santorum barely mentioned the new law. Protesters—the local Occupy hitching post was a short walk away—shouted  him down whenever they could. Most stories about the rally led with the attempts to disrupt it, not the marriage material.

The Rick Santorum who’s soaring in primary polls looks a lot like the Santorum who lost his 2006 re-election bid by 18 points. Here is a difference: His culture war talk is softer, more implied. He talks up his welfare reform role and his doom-saying about Iran far more than he talks up his stances on homosexuality or Prop 8. He doesn’t need to emphasize it, because the people who acid-test Republicans on social issues know they can trust him. He rallied for Terri Schiavo once; he doesn’t have much else to prove.

That’s gotten clearer since the field was winnowed down to four people. A month ago, when 150 evangelical leaders met in Texas to get behind a candidate, Santorum won easily. “Many, not all, social conservatives, continue to have doubts about whether Romney is a true social conservative,” explained Richard Land, an attendee and president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “Between Santorum and Gingrich, Santorum was perceived to be the more consistently and reliably social conservative of the two.”

He won that perception, and held onto it, even as his first political career imploded. He held onto it as the Great Recession came and the culture wars faded. How do we know they faded, even among Republican voters?

In a new New York Times poll, only 47 percent of Republican voters say they’re against any legal recognition of gay unions. In the 2008 entrance poll taken of Iowa caucus-goers, only 26 percent said that “the economy” was their top concern. In 2012, the number was 42 percent, with 36 percent saying “the budget deficit” was tops. In the most socially conservative electorate of the primary so far, social issues were looking less critical. Santorum convinced the people he needed, like the Family Leader’s Bob Vander Plaats, that he was the truest, most electable, social conservative. He didn’t need to rub it in.

Compare how he’s talked about these issues with the ways his rivals—some of them long gone now—have talked about them. When he was struggling in Iowa, Rick Perry put on a barn coat and cut a TV ad bemoaning the scourge of homosexuals and a war on Christianity. Rick Santorum used to talk like that. “I have no problem with homosexuality,” he said in the 2003 interview that produced the “man on dog” quote. “I have a problem with homosexual acts.” He argued that sodomy laws served a purpose, because “if the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery.”

Try and get Rick Santorum 2.0 to talk like that. In the final debate before the New Hampshire primary, when he was asked if he’d be a “gay rights leader”—a pretty blunt trick question—Santorum said he’d “be a voice in speaking out for making sure that every person in America, gay or straight, is treated with respect and dignity and has the equality of opportunity.” If his son told him he was gay, “I would love him as much as I did the second before he said it.” In two new ads, his social conservatism is mentioned only in a long rundown of other reasons to vote for him. One mentions that he was “one of the top 25 evangelicals in America,” according to Time, but the point is left out there, context-free.

The result of all this: polls showing Santorum as an electable national candidate. The strategists who worked against Santorum in 2006 are amused. He gave them length after length of rope, they hung him with it, and essentially, he hasn’t changed. He still holds onto his criticism of homosexuality, for example—that it stems from the rise of the welfare state and loose morals. They have destroyed the American ideal of one-income households. Sex is meant to be a procreation-only pursuit, and they’ve ruined that, too.

Santorum’s Senate career lasted from 1995 to 2007. With one exception, the slowdown of 2001-02, his political career coincided with a period of huge economic growth. It was an ideal context for Santorum’s ideas about the welfare state shrinking as more moral Americans took care of their own. In 2003, during a discussion of further welfare reform, Santorum suggested that “making people struggle a little bit is not necessarily the worst thing.” In his 2005 book, It Takes a Family, Santorum suggested that many two-income households were materialistic. “In far too many families with young children,” he wrote, “both parents are working, when, if they really took an honest look at the budget, they might confess that both of them don’t really need to, or at least may not need to work as much as they do.”

How does Mitt Romney take advantage of that? He hasn’t tried yet. His argument against Rick Santorum is all about the former senator’s résumé, and support for earmarks—stuff  libertarians care about, nothing cultural. The digging into Santorum’s theories about contraception has only just begun. Since he’s risen in the polls, he’s tried to genericize that issue, too, attacking a contraception mandate as the “government trying to control your life,” not as some battle in the culture war. How long can this new Santorum keep that up?