TCS Daily

Democratic Plant

By James Pinkerton - April 25, 2003 12:00 AM

So how 'bout that Rick Santorum? At the moment that Republicans are riding high, he finds a way to bring them down. Consider: in April 2003, George W. Bush has united the Republican Party-and more importantly, the country-around the American military victory in Iraq. Yet at the same time, the President faces huge challenges on the home front, most notably, getting his bold $726 billion tax cut enacted. Surely every Republican pulling for Bush 43's re-election remembers the fate of Bush 41-winner in war, loser on the economy. And the key to avoiding that fate is staying true to the neo-Reaganite economic fundamentals of cutting taxes and controlling spending. Bush himself, having emphasized "compassionate conservatism" and "inclusion," has been so effective because he is "on message" about his top strategic and economic priorities.

So then one might ask: why did Santorum, the third-ranking Republican in the Senate, choose this moment to start an extraneous fight with gays-and with tolerant Americans in general-over a live-and-let-live social issue? Why did the Pennsylvanian go "off message," into a discussion of homosexuality, when the priority of the tax-cut pitch is so obvious? Why would he cause a hairline fracture in the Bush coalition, knowing, as he must, that the Democrats and the media would seek to wedge it into a chasm?

I can only think of one reason. And that is, for all his preoccupation with gays and lesbians-and what they do at home, and how it shouldn't be tolerated, and his seeming determination to send them back into the closet-Santorum is a closet case of a different kind: he's a closet Democrat. That's right, he's a Carville-ite partisan sent in to wreck-or at least tear a wing off-the Bush coalition. Yes, yes, it's hard to believe that about Santorum. After all, he had a two-decade career in professional Republican politics, including the last 13 years in Washington. But there's such a thing, one must remember, as "sleepers"-spies who are dormant for a long period, and then wake up on cue to wreak mayhem. No doubt you think I'm kidding when I assert this about the Keystone State solon. But let's look at the evidence; you might decide for yourself that no other explanation makes as much sense.

Here's what he told the Associated Press on Monday, when, during a discussion of "family values," he gratuitously volunteered his opinion on Lawrence v. Texas, a case involving a challenge to Texas' sodomy law that was argued before the Supreme Court in March. Santorum, as a member of the Legislative Branch, has no obligation to comment at all about a matter being reviewed by Judicial Branch. But that didn't stop him. "If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual [gay] 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. You have the right to anything." That's a familiar-enough slippery-slope argument, often favored by social conservatives, an argument that carelessly conflates consensual private behavior with incest, an obvious crime against the public interest.

But nonetheless, once the backlash began, Santorum's press secretary said that his words were taken out of context, that the AP had gotten it all wrong. So the next day the wire service released the entire transcript, which had been taped-and it was all the more damning.

The additional words showed Santorum yet again lumping gay sex in the same category as incest; he was further revealed to have said, "All those things are antithetical to a healthy, stable, traditional family," adding, lest his point be lost, "they undermine the basic tenets of our society and the family." It's hard to get much clearer than that.

To be sure, Santorum also said, "I have no problem with homosexuality. I have a problem with homosexual acts." Yup, and some of his best friends are homosexuals-presumably non-practicing. One wonders what he'll do if he bumps into, say, Mary Cheney and her partner at the White House Christmas Party.

And so the firestorm erupted.

The usual suspects-the Human Rights Campaign, the Center for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights, former Vermont governor Howard Dean, now running for the Democratic presidential nomination-have called for Santorum to step down from the admittedly mostly honorific chairmanship of the Republican Conference.

And on the other side, conservative voices, such as those of Gary Bauer, Linda Chavez, the Family Research Council, National Review, and the Christian Coalition, all rose to Santorum's defense. The Senate Majority Leader, Bill Frist, issued a statement declaring that Santorum has been "a consistent voice for inclusion and compassion in the Republican Party and in the Senate." Which, of course, makes one wonder whether Frist took the time to read a) what Santorum said, and/or b) the statement that went out under his name.

Others on the right complained of a media double standard. Democrats, they say, get away with the verbal equivalent of murder all the time, thanks to a friendly press corps that never winches up the outrage machine against Democrats the way it does against Republicans. That's sometimes true enough, of course, as Sen. Robert Byrd (who used the "n" word on television), and Sen. Patty Murray (who compared Osama Bin Laden favorably to the United States because of his alleged commitment to day care) have both discovered to their delight.

However, that double-standard critique might not be applicable in this case, because plenty on the libertarian right-which is to say, a big part of the Bush-Republican coalition-have taken umbrage at Santorum's words.

Bill O'Reilly of Fox News, arguably the biggest single gun on the starboard side of politics, leveled his aim at Santorum. In his "Talking Points" opener on Wednesday night, O'Reilly said, "America does not need a sex police. It's a waste of time and resources." To be sure, the Factor-master defended Santorum against "witch hunters," but he returned to his theme, which was that if Santorum wants sex police, the voters of Pennsylvania should "vote him out."

And that's the point. The fact that so much ink and airtime is being devoted to Santorum is proof that the whole matter is, from a Bush-agenda point of view, a waste of time and resources. And from a long-term Republican coalition point of view, it's self-destructive.

Bush himself has set the proper tone. In his speeches about matters of religion, he is careful to include as many folks as he can inside his rhetorical tent. Especially these days, it can only help when he includes in his litany, "church, synagogues and mosques." Indeed, lest he leave any potential voter or supporter behind, he often says, "people of faith and of no faith."

Indeed, in 2001, Bush nominated an openly gay foreign service officer, Michael Guest, to be ambassador to Romania. After Guest was confirmed by the Senate, his gay partner, Alex Nevarez, who was standing next to Guest at his State Department swearing-in ceremony, was specifically acknowledged by Secretary of State Colin Powell. Now that's inclusion. And did Republican fortunes decline as a result? Were family values undermined? Did grass grow in the streets?

The net benefit of such inclusion is that it's been mostly all quiet on the social-issue front. Which is good when overseas wars require a collective national effort. And so, for example, Andrew Sullivan, a prominent gay journalist, has been among Bush's most prominent and energetic supporters on the campaign against terror. But lately, and not surprisingly, Sullivan has been lambasting the Pennsylvania lawmaker, in the web pages of and on his own personal site: "Santorum is proposing a politics that would essentially abolish domestic sexual privacy," Sullivan wrote recently. There's no reason to think that Sullivan would shift his position on the war on terror, or even on Bush, but there's every reason to think that he might reassess his view of Republicans if they continue to include Santorum in their high councils.

And meanwhile, as Bush tries to keep his attention on his announced priorities, the Family Research Council turns up its heat. On Thursday, Ken Connor, FRC president, accused Republican hierarchs of doing a "Santorum Shuffle" -that is, not supporting Santorum and his gay-bashing comments. Connor was precision-guided in his political targeting: "RNC Chairman Marc Racicot, for example, has yet to utter a syllable in public in support of Sen. Santorum." And, Connor continued, "The White House continues to bob and weave, as though defending marriage were a controversial issue too hot to handle." Blam.

Never mind the fact that Connor is inverting the truth; Santorum's words weren't about "defending marriage," but rather, about criminalizing private behavior. What matters is that the home front firefight is blazing now; both sides of the debate within the conservative/libertarian coalition-Sullivan & Co. on one side, Connor & Co. on the other side-are now going at it, full auto.

Of course, an armistice might be achieved if Santorum would simply apologize. On Wednesday, the aptly named Republican Unity Coalition, a group of gay-straight Republicans determined to make homosexuality a "non-issue" within Republican ranks, issued a polite statement that urged Santorum, in the softest possible terms, to apologize to "gay men and women who support, build and have loving families all across America."

But Santorum is hanging tough. That is, he's doing lots of spinning and word parsing and rallying the social-conservative right wing, but no apologizing.

Some say that Santorum will suffer a Trent Lott-like fate, and ultimately lose his leadership post. But that's unlikely. What's more likely is that Santorum will stay right where he is. As a result, at a time when the GOP needs to be hitting harmoniously on all cylinders, foreign and domestic, various factions within the party will be sniping at each other over an issue that has nothing to do with anything on the legislative horizon for 2003. Moreover, long term, Santorum's continued presence will send a signal to potential swing voters that for all the successes of President Bush, for all the earnestness of his outreach efforts, the Republican Party is still home to haters. And some potential voters will be deterred.

See? That's my point: Santorum is a Democratic plant. It's the only explanation.

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