The 2016 Stump Speeches: Rick Santorum

[This is part of a series of articles on the speeches of 2016 presidential candidates. The overall vision of the series and links to the other articles can be found here.]

On May 27, in a speech at Penn United Technologies in Cabot, Pennsylvania, Rick Santorum announced that he is running for president again. [video with transcript, better transcript]

Rebranding. The main thing I learned from the speech is: Santorum is rebranding for the 2016 cycle. He hasn’t changed the product, in that he still has the same positions and beliefs. But the emphasis will be different this time.

The Santorum of 2012 was mainly a culture warrior: anti-abortion (to the point of telling women carrying their rapist’s child to “accept what God has given you” and “make the best out of a bad situation”), anti-gay (he famously compared gay sex to “man on dog” in 2003 and then stood by that quote in 2011), and even anti-contraception. (“It’s not okay because it’s a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”)

And he still opposes those things. (Well, I’m guessing about contraception; he didn’t mention that.) But they’re not front and center any more. Instead, “My priority is you: the American worker.”

That’s not completely new either. In the 2012 cycle, especially after he was the last man standing against plutocrat Mitt Romney, Santorum tried to be the candidate of the working-class Republican. [see endnote 1] And much of the post-Ohio-primary wrap-up analysis said that Santorum could have won if he’d focused on that message, rather than getting drawn back into talking about contraception.

It sounds like he got the message. The announcement speech took place at a manufacturing plant in his home state, and was dominated by declarations like “Working families don’t need another President tied to big government or big money.” and “I promise you we will regain the title of a leader in world manufacturing.” He introduced himself by holding a lump of coal and telling about his coal-mining Italian-immigrant grandfather. [2]

New and improved nostalgia. Santorum’s conservatism has always been scented with nostalgia, but this time around the formula has changed: Rather than longing for Leave It to Beaver families, he’s trying to recover a past of humming factories, where unskilled workers could earn enough to support a housewife and send two kids to college. [3]

Any nostalgia-driven campaign has to answer two questions: How did we lose those golden days, and what can we do to get them back? Santorum answers the first in a classic right-wing fashion: American workers didn’t lose their place in the world economy, they were stabbed in the back.

In the late 70’s [4], like many of you, we saw the economic devastation here in Southwestern Pennsylvania and across this country, particularly in manufacturing, as a result of the excesses and indifference of big labor, big government, and yes, big business. Here in Southwestern Pennsylvania, the epicenter, we lost over 100,000 jobs in what seemed to be overnight.

That has to and did leave a mark on all of us. Afterwards, big government and big business told our workers that times have changed, American workers could no longer compete with low foreign wages and that those jobs were gone forever. Well, what about those politicians? For all those years, what did they do? What did they do for communities across this area and across this country and in small town America? They had no plan, and they provided no hope. And to that, I say: “No longer.”

As Middle America is hollowing out, we can’t sit idly by as big government politicians make it harder for our workers and then turn around and blame them for losing jobs overseas.

And they were subverted by an underclass.

Over the last 20 years, we’ve brought into this country, legally and illegally, 35 million mostly unskilled workers. And the result, over that same period of time, workers’ wages have flat lined.

Hillary Clinton and big business, they have called for a massive influx in unskilled labor. Business does it because they want to control costs. Hillary does it – well – she just wants votes. Their priorities are profits and power. My priority is you, the American worker.

Sleight of hand. Where Santorum will be vulnerable, at least in a general election, is in his answer to the second question: What in his proposals would actually do anything for the American worker? Answer: not much. His rhetoric about workers mostly just masks an agenda that will make the rich richer.

During Santorum’s grandfather’s lifetime, mining transformed from a hellish existence to the kind of endurable, good-paying job Santorum is nostalgic for. Two forces were responsible for that: government safety regulations and the United Mine Workers. Santorum is against both. His speech mentions unions only in that one derisive “big labor” quote above. As for regulations:

We will revoke every executive order and regulation — yeah — will revoke every executive order and regulation that costs American jobs.

Both in his speech and on his web site, Santorum frames a flat tax as his primary pro-worker idea. In fact it is an anti-worker idea, as anyone with common sense can see: Assessing the same tax rate on everyone reduces taxes for those who pay the top tax rates now, i.e., the rich. Unless the government is going to collect far less revenue, that means working people will have to pay more. And if a sharp loss of revenue and no corresponding cut in defense spending is the plan, will the deficit rise, or will Santorum make working people pay by cutting the other programs that make up most of the federal budget: Social Security and Medicare?

In short, what Santorum is proposing is the same sleight-of-hand Sam Brownback has played on Kansas: Cut taxes on the rich, and then (after huge deficits appear) re-balance the budget on the backs of working people.

The theory that this would create jobs is based on the same trickle-down economics conservatives have promoted for decades: Make the rich much richer, and then they’ll have the money to hire more people. It hasn’t worked for the last forty years, and doing even more of it in the next administration won’t work either. [5]

I could only find two Santorum positions that might genuinely help workers: an “incremental” increase in the minimum wage (I can’t find a commitment to a specific figure, but implicitly it must be lower than the $10.10 proposed by President Obama), and opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.

Nativism. There is one other part of Santorum’s plan that will appeal to working-class conservatives: restricting immigration. His web site says:

He supports reducing immigration from about a million immigrants per year—the current level—down to about 750,000 per year. This will help blue collar American workers get back to work and thrive economically.

He spelled out his plan for undocumented immigrants in a column for Breitbart last month: Build an Israeli-style fence across the southern border, track more closely everyone who comes into the country legally on tourist or education visas, deport everyone who is here illegally, and start a guest-worker program for agricultural workers from Mexico.

Here at least the first-order common sense works: If you reduce the foreign-born competition for unskilled jobs, more native-born Americans might get them, and employers might have to pay more. Whether that all works once you figure in the secondary effects, though, is something a lot of economists doubt. Immigration doesn’t just take jobs, it creates jobs. Throwing out all those working, tax-paying undocumented immigrants will certainly shrink the economy. Whether the resulting smaller economy would have more jobs for the native-born — other than government jobs tracking down undocumented immigrants — is not clear.

At a minimum, there’s something unseemly about a guy glorifying his grandfather’s immigrant experience while denouncing today’s immigrants: Now that my family has made it into the lifeboat, let’s cast off.

Racial resentment. There was nothing overtly racist in Santorum’s speech, but his rhetoric is carefully constructed to appeal to a target audience — working-class Republicans — that is overwhelmingly white. Consequently, it contains certain code phrases that blacks and whites will hear differently.

It’s time we have a President who sees the struggle of working families in America not as an opportunity to divide us along race or class – but as a chance to unite us around the ideal that every child in America deserves her birthright – to be raised by her parents in a healthy home.

The idea that Democrats in general and Obama in particular “divide us along race or class” is very popular among Republicans. But let’s think about what it means. [6] First, delete “class” from the quote, because what else is Santorum doing when he talks about “a president tied to big money”? He’s dividing us by class. He’s saying Jeb Bush can’t represent American workers because he’s from the wrong class.

And how does Obama “divide us by race”? He talks about racism. Unless you believe racism ended with Jim Crow — somebody should ask Santorum about that — it continues to be a problem America needs to address. And how are we going to do that without pointing out ways that the black or Hispanic experience of America continues to diverge from the white experience? So in essence, what Santorum (or any of the other Republicans who use this phrase) mean when they denounce those who “divide us by race” is: People who talk about racism should just shut up.

Black Americans hear that message loud and clear, and know that they are not welcome to put their concerns forward in Santorum’s America. In short, Santorum’s white-targeted rhetoric divides us by race.

The culture warrior. Santorum the Culture Warrior is not gone, but in this speech he was submerged a bit.

As President, I will stand for the principle that every life matters – the poor, the disabled, and the unborn.  I will also fight for the freedom for you to believe what you are called to believe, not just in your places of worship, but outside of your places of worship too.

First, I sincerely doubt that Santorum wants to extend “the freedom to believe what you are called to believe” to, say, Muslims or atheists. He is talking to Christians, and maybe a few conservative Jews. Nobody else.

Second, “outside your places of worship” means that Christian-owned businesses should be able to discriminate against gays, and to dictate how female employees use their health insurance, if they can claim they have religious reasons to do so. (He called the Hobby Lobby decision “a tremendous victory for our freedom of conscience”.)

In front of a different audience, though, the culture war is still front-and-center. On a recent Glenn Beck radio show, Santorum played along with Beck’s apocalyptic fantasy of the government forcing churches to perform weddings for same-sex couples, saying “this is tantamount to government establishing religion.” He went on to echo what Mike Huckabee has been saying, that if the Supreme Court finds that marriage equality is part of the 14th Amendment’s “equal protection of the laws”,

that’s the court’s opinion. They’re entitled to their opinion. But the president and the Congress have an opinion too of what the Constitution is. And if they get it wrong and the consequences are what I suspect they will be toward people of faith, then this president will fight back.

What he leaves out. Mainly two things: climate change (or any concern for the environment at all) and women’s rights.

When he talked about his grandfather, Santorum admiringly held up a lump of coal — the dirtiest kind of fossil fuel to burn. “Cheap energy”, specifically “the shale revolution”, is one of the catalysts he sees for new American manufacturing jobs. And if he really does reverse “every executive order and regulation that costs American jobs”, that would include just about every environmental regulation ever. Didn’t the chemical companies that dumped toxic waste at Love Canal make that waste while creating American jobs?

After all, the climax of that humming-factories era Santorum is nostalgic for came when the Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969, an event immortalized in Randy Neuman’s “Burn On, Big River“.

Specifically, though, I think Santorum is targeting the executive orders President Obama has issued to control greenhouse gases. The words climate, global warming, and greenhouse gas don’t appear in this speech. But Santorum is a climate change denier, and has even criticized the Pope for defending the environment.

And Santorum’s concern for the American worker doesn’t extend to female workers who make less money than their male co-workers or don’t want their employer’s religion to control their health care options. And if a woman would like to make her own choices about when to have children, or even just to have children by someone other than her rapist, tough luck.


[1] His pro-working-class stands have not stopped Santorum from drawing large contributions from mega-wealthy donors like Foster Friess.

[2] It’s always entertaining to watch Republican candidates stretch to connect to the working class. Rick himself was a professional-class kid. His Dad got a G.I.-bill education after World War II — thanks, big government — and became a psychologist. No doubt Jeb Bush’s announcement speech will flash back to a working-class Bush in the Middle Ages.

[3] Just as family-values nostalgia leaves out the oppression of women and blacks, nostalgia for the factories of the 1950s and 60s leaves out pollution, workplace injuries, and the unsafe-at-any-speed cars they made. (In a crash, those steering wheels would go right through your chest.) Also forgotten: the unions that demanded the wages that moved factory-workers into the middle class.

[4] Locating this betrayal in the 1970s is important, because it hides Ronald Reagan’s role in dismantling unions, changing the tax code to favor the rich, and taking the teeth out of antitrust enforcement.

[5] The best capsule definition of trickle-down theory was provided by William Blum: “the principle that the poor, who must subsist on table scraps dropped by the rich, can best be served by giving the rich bigger meals.”

[6] The Weekly Sift’s “Conservative-to-English Lexicon” defines dividing the country as “Talking about the concerns of voters other than real Americans.”

real American, in turn, is defined as “A white conservative Christian born in the United States at least 30 years ago.”

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Comments

  • Kelly Schoenhofen  On June 15, 2015 at 10:43 am

    Generally, the words you say (unless intense sarcasm is obvious) are fairly straightforward and I think would pass a Polifact check.

    However, you said this, and I don’t detect any sarcasm:
    >I could only find two Santorum positions that might genuinely help workers: an “incremental” increase in the minimum wage (I can’t find a commitment to a specific figure, but implicitly it must be lower than the $10.10 proposed by President Obama), and opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.

    You said “genuinely help workers” – can you elaborate on that last portion, about the TPP? I don’t want to get held up on minor clauses of the TPP and what may or may not be in the current draft or final version of it – let’s go with a broad brush and put TPP in the same category as NAFTA, SAFTA, and other FTA’s over the last 20 years.

    Without waiting for your response, and I would love it if you would do a whole column on the TPP, the only response I can come up with from you where the TPP will “genuinely help workers” (in the context of your sentence) is the same way banning the powerloom and flying shuttle would help the weavers guild. We could save alot of jobs in the Netherlands if we stopped that terrible powerloom and flying shuttle. Is that the genuine help you are suggesting workers should have?

    • BobD  On June 15, 2015 at 11:09 am

      One of the many arguments as to how TPP would hurt workers is around the use of ISDS by corporations to attack national worker-protection policies that affect their profits. See for example the suit brought by a French multinational against Egypt for raising their minimum wage: http://aftinet.org.au/cms/veolia-vs-egypt-workers-2014. That and many other arguments against ISDS are presented here: http://files.cwa-union.org/national/issues/PolicyIssues/Trade/TPP_Fact_Sheets_11_19_and_on/isds-fact-sheet-for-ituc-may-2014.pdf

      • Kelly Schoenhofen  On June 15, 2015 at 12:02 pm

        Sure, but ISDS’s have been in place for more than 20 years (via NAFTA), and they have been used _overwhelmingly_ by US corporations to smack down foreign governments. This isn’t rocket surgery. You have to invest in a _foreign_ country to bring a case; I couldn’t find a single example of a foreign companies investing in the US and then using an ISDS against our superior minimum wage, superior OSHA enforcement, superior worker benefits (see, that’s obvious sarcasm ;)).

        Don’t get me wrong, there are parts of the TPP I really despise, but nobody (here) has touched on those. The real arguments against TPP have come from the signatory countries other than the US – and I am very much in agreement, but that’s not germane here.

        So going back to your statement – can you explain, without using metaphors, statements that require 3 if’s, or hyperbole, how opposing the TPP would “genuinely help [US] workers”? Calling out the ISDS section of the TPP – when NAFTA has had a more restrictive version (as in, worse/meaner – not requiring you to go through local arbitration first, for instance) for more than 20 years and there hasn’t been a single instance (as far as I could research) of a _foreign_ company suing a US company to the detriment of US workers – doesn’t carry any water for me.

      • Anonymous  On June 15, 2015 at 12:28 pm

        Do you believe the US has special standing with ISDS? I do not, so I fail to see why you are limiting scope to suits against the US. Either it can be used to attack workers rights in any country, or none.

    • weeklysift  On June 15, 2015 at 2:40 pm

      You’re not the first person to tell me I have to do a trade article. I’m not looking forward to the background reading, but it might be necessary.

      Santorum argues that the TPP allows other countries to continue manipulating their currency in ways that hurt American trade, but restricts the tariffs America might use to fight back. I don’t know whether that’s true or not, but it at least seems plausible. Hence, the “might genuinely help”.

      I know you mean your power loom example to point out the absurdity of protectionism, but it deserves more attention than you’re giving it. From a two or three century perspective, the benefits of the Industrial Revolution seem obvious. But those benefits took a long time — a generation or so — to filter down to the lower classes. And if you were a skilled craftsman whose trade secrets got designed into a machine operated by unskilled workers, several generations might have passed before your family got back to its pre-machine level.

      The theoretical benefits of free trade might be similar. It may raise GDP as a whole, but it’s hard to see how American factory workers have benefited so far. And if you are one of the specific workers who lost a good job to overseas competition, you may not live long enough for the rising tide to lift your boat. It’s a good example of Keynes’ adage that in the long run we are all dead.

  • busterggi (Bob Jase)  On June 15, 2015 at 11:05 am

    I am glad to see Santorum, along with luminaries such as Michael Savage, take a stand on class warfare against free-market capitalism.

    (snark)

  • Josh  On June 15, 2015 at 11:53 am

    “Also forgotten: the unions that demanded the wages that moved factory-workers into the middle class.”

    This is the worst internal inconsistency, I think. How can Santorum, on the one hand, pine for the era when factory and other industrial workers made a good living while, on the other hand, decrying the manner in which that good living came about?

  • Chris  On June 15, 2015 at 4:29 pm

    This is a great analysis, but I feel like you left out discussion of the very first lie: “I promise you we will regain the title of a leader in world manufacturing.”

    The United States is THE leader in world manufacturing. We manufacture more than we ever have in the past and a lot more than the next closest country, China.

    The industrial economy is over. What baffles me is that everyone keeps saying a) that it was a good thing for workers and b) that it might ever come back. But then, you know what they say about control of the means of production…

    • weeklysift  On June 15, 2015 at 7:22 pm

      Good point. We’re still a world leader (I haven’t looked up exactly where we rank) in agriculture too, but we’re not going to solve our unemployment problem with more farmers either. The farming sector employed over 90% of our citizens in the Founders’ day, but that day is not coming back.

  • thebhgg  On June 15, 2015 at 4:44 pm

    You say:

    >People who talk about racism should just shut up.

    >Black Americans hear that message loud and clear, and know that they are not welcome to put their concerns forward in Santorum’s America. In short, Santorum’s white-targeted rhetoric divides us by race.

    Can I offer that *I* hear the message the same way, and I am a white, wealthy, college-education, native English speaking, US passport holding, internationally travelled, right-handed, cis-het male. My views are not welcome in Santorum’s ‘Murica.

    I think you just lost a strategic point by allowing dissent to Santorum’s view to fall along racial lines. Santorum is misinforming his audience by saying only blacks care about civil rights, but you’ve supported his position by describing the dog whistle comments as dividing us along racial lines. Opposition to Santorum may include all the Blacks, but that opposition is not racially homogenous.

    Submitted for your consideration.

    And indeed, after a short consideration (but before clicking “Post”, yea me!) I realize that you may not actually believe that Santorum’s rhetoric is racially divisive. I only wish you had gone one step further than calling out the hypocrisy, and also pointed out the inaccuracy of Santorum’s comment. I’ve read a lot of your work, and I think I should have know better than to get the initial reaction I did. But I did, and I’m sharing it anyway because it took me a whole 20 minutes to write 😉

  • Larry Benjamin  On June 15, 2015 at 7:53 pm

    We shouldn’t dismiss Santorum too readily. He ran a brilliant campaign on a shoestring in 2012, and I’m convinced that if Sheldon Adelson had supported his campaign instead of Newt Gingrich’s, Santorum may very well have been the nominee. He came pretty close even with no money against the “plutocrat” Mitt Romney. Imagine what he could do with a billion dollars behind him.

  • Andrew Hidas  On June 19, 2015 at 9:53 am

    I think his holding up a lump of coal as the chief symbol of his campaign kickoff says it all…

  • mysanal  On June 23, 2015 at 1:16 pm

    Well done, as always. I just wanted to let you know that someone out here loved that you put in a picture from Watchmen. 🙂

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