Elections 2012: Rick Santorum Used to Cast Himself as ‘Progressive Conservative’

In his circuitous path to the top of the primary polls, Rick Santorum has presented himself as the pure conservative alternative to Mitt Romney. But an extensive review of newspaper archives and interviews with officials involved in his successful 1990 congressional race against Rep. Doug Walgren (D-Pa.) suggests that Santorum was cut from a similar GOP cloth as his current adversary.

In his circuitous path to the top of the primary polls, Santorum has presented himself as the pure conservative alternative to Romney. But an extensive review of newspaper archives and interviews with officials involved in his successful 1990 congressional race against Rep. Doug Walgren (D-Pa.) suggests that Santorum was cut from a similar GOP cloth as his current adversary. Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

If you hear the description of a candidate who making his first run for Congress in the early 1990s promised not to be a Reagan Republican, fashioned himself a progressive conservative, said he was impartial on unions and stayed vague on abortion rights, you would probably think of Mitt Romney.

However, in this case, it applies to former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, whose own political origins have been explored in far less depth.

The Huffington Post has found a number of articles and interviews suggesting that Santorum was cut from a similar GOP cloth as his current adversary.

For example, in a November 3, 1990, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article, Santorum distanced himself from Ronald Reagan: “Santorum insisted that he was the one who is more in touch. ‘From child care to taxes, we’re right for this district. This district has had enough of government sticking its nose constantly in our business,’ he said, insisting nonetheless that he is not a Reagan Republican.”

Santorum referred to himself as a “progressive conservative.” Nor is there an available copy of the manual referenced in that Pittsburgh Press piece.

The Huffington Post reached out to its author, Dennis Roddy, who now works as a speechwriter in the Pennsylvania governor’s office. Neither he nor the Santorum campaign returned a request for comment.

Meanwhile, William J. Green, a longtime political analyst who lived in the state’s 18th congressional district at the time, said he wouldn’t be surprised if Santorum had embraced the phrase.

“I could hear him saying he was a progressive conservative. He was younger then. And he was a neophyte when it came to this stuff,” Green told The Huffington Post.

“Remember, if you were a Republican, you were out-registered by almost 2.5 or three to one. And the idea then was to get that seat back in Republican hands,” he said.

“There was no advocacy except trashing Doug Walgren that I saw or ever heard,” Walgren said. “All I can say is his campaign was made primarily of leafleting. It was all negative leafleting and … it was a complete slam on me.”

When Santorum launched his long-shot campaign against Walgren, the centerpiece of his resume was his background in Republican politics.

Santorum had volunteered for the late Senator John Heinz (R-Pa.), and worked as an aide to Republican state senator Doyle Corman. His conservative roots were clear. But, as Walgren recalled, he was more of a tactician than an ideologue.

In 1990 Santorum was a politician who had not yet found the conservative voice he has today. He referred to himself as a “moderate on labor issues” and said he supported right-to-work laws.

He has since backed away from those planks, saying he’d adopt a different position as president.

There are also a number of topics that came up during the 1990 campaign on which Santorum has remained consistent, including a strict opposition to tax hikes, an eagerness to tackle entitlement reform and vocal support for stay-at-home parents.

But even on issues like abortion — a topic on which Santorum’s strong pro-life credentials are rarely, if ever, questioned — an internal evolution seemingly occurred.

In that October 28 Pittsburgh Pressarticle, he said he opposed government funding for abortions, but “beyond that I tried as much as I could to dance around the issue, not really take a position on it.”

Indeed, by the time the campaign ended, with Santorum scoring a squeaker of an upset victory, his positions had crystallized.

The anti-abortion political action committee LifePAC played a grassroots organizing role for his campaign, according to press reports, helping to solidify the shift. Walgren himself conceded that it was no longer possible to question Santorum’s pro-life or ideological credentials.

“He was certainly seen from the time he took office as a real conservative,” said Walgren. “By that time, he had essentially joined up with [Newt] Gingrich.”

Share this article

We welcome comments that advance the story directly or with relevant tangential information. We try to block comments that use offensive language, all capital letters or appear to be spam, and we review comments frequently to ensure they meet our standards. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Coinspeaker Ltd.