Searching for Santorum

After his surge, it's hard to find much needed coverage of who he is and what he wants

Here’s what we know about Rick Santorum: He wears sweater vests, at least when members of the media first noticed him. He surged. He’s a social conservative—very against abortion, very against gay marriage (which turned a college audience in New Hampshire very against him). You don’t want to Google him. And he can be prickly and long-winded, as noted in this story (among many others) from The Washington Post’s Rosalind S. Helderman: “Rick Santorum talks to voters in New Hampshire—and talks and talks and talks”.

In an era of carefully scripted and scheduled campaign stops, Santorum’s town halls are marathons — 90 minutes or more of long discursive history lessons. Interested in Ronald Reagan’s reform of Social Security in 1983? Rick will tell you about it. He has plenty of thoughts about the Islamic significance of the town where Iran is thought to be building a nuclear facility, too. And, of course, he talks about presidential term limits in Honduras.

But for a man that talks and talks and talks, we know relatively little about the substance of what he talks about. The only things we learn about Santorum’s policy positions in Helderman’s article, for example, we learn by chance—given in descriptions meant to illustrate what a windbag he is.

“Anyone know what life expectancy was when Social Security was started?” he often asks. “Anyone?” as audience members call out guesses.

“Sixty-one!” he replies, going on to explain why he believes the retirement age should be raised from 66 now that people are living to 80. Few make for the doors before he finishes.

Later in the article, there is a passing reference to Santorum’s opposition to gay marriage. And that’s it.

It’s nice to get some of this color from the campaign trail, but given that most of the country is just starting to pay attention to Santorum, Helderman could have summarized all that talk in more illuminating fashion.

Helderman is hardly alone: on Friday, in reading the past week of reporting about the recently relevant candidate, it’s been almost entirely color or horserace coverage—with few points made about what Rick Santorum actually stands for and what he’d do as president.

Instead, there have been lots of stories alerting us to the fact that Santorum must prepare for the national spotlight and greater scrutiny.

Take for example, this story, “Spotlight shines on Santorum rough edges and all” by New York Times’s Michael Shear, which discusses the perils the candidate faces with his new prominence:

As he tries to quickly build on his success in Iowa, Mr. Santorum is displaying the spunk that kept him going for months despite hardly a mention by the national press corps. But he is also displaying the rough edges and lack of polish that go along with a presidential campaign that was for months conducted largely out of the public eye.

Until now.

A dozen television news cameras were lined up at the Rotary Club meeting in Manchester at the crack of dawn, waiting for Mr. Santorum to arrive. Reporters swarmed him a couple hours later at his first town hall meeting. And there were so many cameras and reporters at the Tilt’n Diner in Tilton that he could hardly move through the aisles to shake hands.

All the new-found attention is forcing Mr. Santorum to perform under intense pressure, with only five days left before voters in New Hampshire will help decide the fate of his presidential campaign. This weekend, Mr. Santorum will have two more debate appearances. And his lectern is likely to be dead center, a reward of sorts for coming in second by a ridiculously close margin in the Iowa caucuses.

Meanwhile, this is the only thing we really learn about what Santorum has to say to those voters who will be scrutinizing:

The audience seemed to like his attacks on President Obama, his criticism of burdensome regulations on banks and small businesses, and his description of the bureaucracy’s efforts to “hook” people with dependency on support.

He lost the audience a bit when he started talking about the “reconciliation process” that the Senate could use to repeal the health care law even without a 60-vote supermajority. But even that got some applause from a crowd primed to dislike the law.

Paul West at the Los Angeles Times gives even less in his story “Rick Santorum plays the expectations game in New Hampshire.”

Encouragingly, there have been a few stories this week filling in the space between Santorum’s rough edges. While not comprehensive, The New York Times’s Sheryl Gay Stolberg has a decent primer on the candidate here, explaining:

On the campaign trail, he makes the case that traditional marriage is one prescription for the nation’s economic ills. During a swing through South Carolina this fall, he dropped in on a Christian radio station, where the host of the drive-time talk show, Tony Beam, asked Mr. Santorum how social issues would play in an election dominated by the economy.

Mr. Santorum did not miss a beat, launching into a long discourse on how single-parent homes spawn poverty and government intervention. “Government gets bigger,” he argued, “when families get weaker.”

There are also a growing number of stories—like these of The Washington Post’s Michael Gerson and National Journal’s Ronald Brownstein describing Santorum’s “compassionate conservatism”—and comparing his candidacy to that of Pat Buchannan’s in 1996.

And as Mike Allen pointed out in Playbook this morning, a few papers followed Bloomberg News’s lead on a substantive story—“Santorum Becomes Millionaire After Senate Loss”—about Santorum cashing in on his D.C. connections after losing his senate seat in 2006.

These are good starts, but as America starts to learn about—and seriously consider for President—Santorum, there’s a serious need for substantive reporting about the candidate’s past and his policy visions.

Longtime Santorum-antagonist and Philadelphia Daily News reporter Will Bunch gets the ball rolling, by sharply raising some unexplored issues in “The Santorum that America doesn’t know”. While presidential candidate deserve hard scrutiny, not every story needs an acid touch. There are lots more genteel stories—as basic as spelling out Santorum’s economic positions vis a vis Romney’s and Paul’s—waiting to be reported out there too.

Who will get them done in time for voters to find them useful?

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR. Tags: , ,