One of the perennial realities of campaign politics is the inevitable trajectory candidates take when moving from obscure also-ran to emergent underdog to front-runner: the higher the profile, the greater the scrutiny, and the added importance of “oppo” research. Many media observers have noted, in the wake of Wednesday’s Republican presidential primary debate in Arizona, that Rick Santorum was besieged by his opponents with attacks based on his voting record in the US Senate.
The primary thrust of the charge: While campaigning as a principled, uncompromising champion of cultural conservatism, Santorum’s voting record reveals a pattern of votes on policy that contradict his avowed platform, sometimes in stark ways. This exchange from the debate provides a prime example:
In the immediate term, this problem requires Santorum to manage the apparent inconsistencies between his current rhetoric and his past record. More broadly, this is yet another example of the challenges faced by current and former members of Congress who run for the presidency — ironically, the more experience you have, the greater the paper trail from which opponents can cull decontextualized bits of business to form the basis of an attack. But for me, the most important consequence of this phenomenon is the continuing assault on collaborative negotiation and compromise that resides at the heart of deliberative democracy.
To get at this larger issue, let’s first consider the initial example in the video excerpt above, in which Santorum finds himself having to explain the process of congressional earmarking to a national audience who currently holds a job approval rating of 10%, including a Tea Party constituency who drove Congress to impose a moratorium on earmarks after the 2010 midterm election. Mitt Romney, himself the beneficiary of congressional earmark spending while leading the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Games and while serving as governor of Massachusetts, has himself never had to propose or vote for earmarks himself — so he is in a relatively advantageous position to attack Santorum and former Speaker Newt Gingrich for their role in the now reviled process. Romney hauls out the now-famous “bridge to nowhere” earmark — the failed project for the Gravina Island Bridge in Alaska made infamous during the 2008 presidential campaign — as a synecdoche representing the self-serving and wasteful excesses of the earmark process.
So how does Santorum defend himself? First, as the video displays, he attempts to explain how the process actually operates, and how Romney’s made-for-TV rebuttal actually is a restatement of the status quo:
It’s really interesting, Governor, because the process you just described of an open process where members of Congress put forth their suggestions on how to spend money, have them voted on individually, is exactly how the process worked. So what you just suggested as to how earmarks should work in the future is exactly how they worked in the past. So I suspect you would have supported earmarks if you were in the United States Senate. . . . Wait a second. You’re entitled to your opinions, Mitt. You’re not entitled to . . . misrepresent the facts, and you’re misrepresenting the facts. You don’t know what you’re taking about. What happened in the earmark process — what happens in the earmark process was that members of Congress would ask, formally, publicly request these things, put them on paper, and have them allocated, and have them voted on a committee, have them voted on, on the floor of the Senate.
The exchange reveals one example of an earmark — federal financial support of the Olympic Games — that was deemed politically acceptable. Santorum has previously declared that there are “good earmarks and bad earmarks,” and has publicly defended his support of earmarks for a human tissue medical program in Pittsburgh, as well as defense spending for the controversial V-22 Osprey helicopter (dubbed by some military personnel the “widowmaker” due to the 30 fatalities during its development), both of which directly benefited his home state of Pennsylvania.
This exchange also goes on to get at a perennial bugaboo for fiscally conservative Republicans: the reality that bills must be voted on and signed by presidents without the ability to excise particular provisions with a line-item veto, a practice enacted by Congress in 1996 but ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1998 for violating the separation of powers between Congress and the President. (Incidentally, the House recently voted in bipartisan fashion to approve a line-item veto; what will happen subsequently in the Senate and the Supreme Court is uncertain).
So now we get to a bigger issue for Santorum, as well as most legislators seeking the presidency (with the possible exception of Representative Ron Paul, who apparently doesn’t vote in favor of anything in Congress that actually involves spending money): a record of supporting legislation in the past that he now opposes (or at least regrets). Such a record inspires attacks such as this one, the latest from the Ron Paul campaign:
The Arizona debate revealed a few choice examples that have emerged as anathema to the GOP’s conservative base.
The first: a vote in favor of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind education reform act — which is now spun by Paul as evidence of Santorum’s support for big government intrusion into local matters.
Let’s hold aside for the moment that numerous legislators on both sides of the aisle supported NCLB initially, its co-authors ranging from current House Speaker John Boehner to the late champion of liberal social policy Senator Ted Kennedy. And that supporting a policy that looks promising initially but turns out to be problematic later, prompting opposition to it, might be characterized as an act of prudent judgement (and not merely a “flip-flop”, perhaps the easiest and most abused trope in campaign politics). Here Paul attacks Santorum for his willingness to put partisan loyalty ahead of his obligation to the Constitution. Santorum’s defense of his NCLB vote, attacked by Romney as well, was both politically destructive and eminently reasonable as a description of how the legislative process operates:
Note his language here (emphasis added), which is met with the angry boos of conservatives in the audience, and the grins of his opponents who smell blood in the water:
Well, you know what? I supported No Child Left Behind. I supported it. It was the principal priority of President Bush to try to take on a failing education system and try to impose some sort of testing regime that would be able to quantify how well we’re doing with respect to education. I have to admit, I voted for that. It was against the principles I believed in, but, you know, when you’re part of the team, sometimes you take one for the team, for the leader, and I made a mistake. (BOOING) You know, politics is a team sport, folks. And sometimes you’ve got to rally together and do something. And in this case, you know, I thought testing was — and finding out how bad the problem was wasn’t a bad idea. What was a bad idea was all the money that was put out there, and that, in fact, was a huge problem. I admit the mistake and I will not make that mistake again.
It goes without saying that many acts of legislative deal-making and partisan line-toeing are done for political advantage, regardless of the real-world policy consequences. But Paul and Romney would appear to want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The purpose of a legislature is to legislate. If legislating doesn’t happen, the legislature is dysfunctional. The business of legislating in a body of hundreds of representatives and senators is one of coalition-building, negotiation, and collaboration. It is a team sport. And I suspect Representative Paul actually knows this. So, if (a) the political leadership in your party seeks to advance an ideological and policy agenda that you support, by and large, (b) the specific piece of legislation in question isn’t perfect in terms of your ideals, but addresses things you believe are important in a positive way, and (c) your continued effectiveness as a representative for your constituents depends on your status in the legislature and in your party, why on earth wouldn’t you support that legislation?
Given the reality that not all policy promises come to fruition as anticipated, it is likely that most (if not all) legislators will look back on their records and find votes that they wish in hindsight they could take back. But that doesn’t necessarily make the initial decision, at the time, a bad decision (e.g., the votes of many members of Congress who, in good faith and relying on what they were presented as compelling evidence of a clear and present danger, authorized the use of military force against Iraq in 2002). And it doesn’t make retrospective regret based on subsequent events “flip-flopping.”
In any event, Romney’s subsequent response called into question Santorum’s bona fides as a principled political leader:
I wonder which team he was taking it for. . . . My team is the American people, not the insiders in Washington, and I’ll fight for the people of America, not special interests. . . . I don’t know if I’ve seen a politician explain in so many ways why it was he voted against his principles; I can tell you one thing: If I am president of the United States, I will abide by my principles, and my team will be the people of the United States of America.
Given how political work in Congress works (indeed, must work), this response is trite at best, and through the familiar trope of “Washington insiders” constructs for the American people an illegitimate vision of how Congress works.
The second of Santorum’s sins in the Senate, again pointed out by Paul, was a vote in favor of a large appropriations bill that included funding for Title X of the Public Health Service Act, which provides funding for contraception and family planning counseling to organizations like Planned Parenthood. The argument: Santorum, a staunch anti-abortion ideologue, cast a vote that put money in the hands of an organization that provides access to abortions.
Santorum’s attempt at damage control (emphasis added) illustrates both the constraints on his actions as a legislator and his attempt to work within that framework to advance his own policy agenda consistent with his principles:
As Congressman Paul knows, I opposed Title X funding. I’ve always opposed Title X funding, but it’s included in a large appropriation bill that includes a whole host of other things, including… (BOOING) … the funding for the National Institutes of Health, the funding for Health and Human Services and a whole bunch of other departments. It’s a multi-billion-dollar bill.
What I did, because Title X was always pushed through, I did something that no one else did. Congressman Paul didn’t. I said, well, if you’re going to have Title X funding, then we’re going to create something called Title XX, which is going to provide funding for abstinence-based programs, so at least we’ll have an opportunity to provide programs that actually work in — in keeping children from being sexually active instead of facilitating children from being sexually active. And I pushed Title XX to — to accomplish that goal.
So while, yes, I — I admit I voted for large appropriation bills and there were things in there I didn’t like, things in there I did, but when it came to this issue, I proactively stepped forward and said that we need to do something at least to counterbalance it, A; B, I would say that I’ve always been very public that, as president of the United States, I will defund Planned Parenthood; I will not sign any appropriation bill that funds Planned Parenthood.
Santorum completes his defense with a move that strikes his opponents and the audience as the “flip-flop” moment: as President I will opposed something that, while in Congress, I voted to support.
Of course, the debate never pivots to address the consequences of a “no” vote on that appropriations bill in question: What would happen if the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Health and Human Services, etc. etc., were defunded? What would happen if every massive federal budget were opposed by every member of Congress who has a beef with a particular line item? Well, one might ask Gingrich, who touts his tenure as Speaker of the House as one during which the federal government balanced the budget — despite the fact that part of the reason for the budget surplus were tax increase policies that he opposed before he was Speaker, which made the balanced budget in 1997 possible. On the other hand, intransigent opposition to budget policy under Speaker Gingrich’s watch led to the partisan budget game of chicken in 1995-96, leading to a government shutdown for which Gingrich and the Republican Congress were blamed — leading further to Democratic campaign victories in 1996 and the Balanced Budget Act of 1997.
This moment is actually very instructive — the 1997 BBA was an act of political compromise between Speaker Gingrich and President Clinton, one which angered the ideological and partisan base of both parties. If not for the Clinton impeachment proceedings (arguably motivated far more by partisan warfare than by any legitimate concern over legal wrongdoing, as evidenced by Clinton’s eventual acquittal in the Senate and consistently solid public approval ratings during the whole debacle), negotiations between Gingrich and Clinton may have resulted in more far-reaching compromises on Social Security and Medicare.
Contemporary campaign politics gestures toward “bipartisanship” when the moment is rhetorically suitable, and simultaneously calls for the end of “Washington politics as usual.” Congressional deal-making is decried as unprincipled, resulting in pork-barrel earmark spending and empty legislative compromising. By contrast, presidential candidates — especially the conservatives — emphasize the strength and consistency of their decision-making based on principle. Thus, candidates with a legislative record are perennially vulnerable to attacks based on their past votes… and they tend to respond as Santorum has, with milquetoast mea culpas and promises to be stronger presidents.
But it’s important to remember that democratic politics is a messy business, and negotiated compromise is how legislative sausage-making is done. It’s not always pretty or convenient, but it’s the system we have, and can result in successful legislation as well as regrettable policy. If we continue to insist on candidates with past records that are consistent to the point of ideological purity, what we may get is a parade of candidates with little to no record (and, potentially, little to no experience) who favor inflexible constancy over the prudent exercise of expedient judgement in pursuit of the best solutions as contingent circumstances allow.