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Base Hit

Rick Santorum's new book will invigorate his base and alienate everyone else.

It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good
By Rick Santorum
(ISI Books, 449 pp., $25.00)
Click here to buy this book

It Takes a Family, Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum's sprawling new ode to the conservative agenda for America, devotes no less than three chapters to abortion. It's an issue that Santorum has made central to his identity as a legislator, the cornerstone of his right-wing bona fides and an emanation of his ultra-orthodox Catholicism. It's also an issue on which he may be rapidly losing ground to, of all people, a Democrat. In his 2006 reelection bid, Santorum is expected to face Bob Casey, Jr., a liberal abortion foe who also happens to be the scion of a local political dynasty. Polling already shows Casey leading by a comfortable margin.

All this goes to show that, despite rising to the third highest position in his party, Santorum remains vulnerable as a politician and not terribly popular as a personality. His habit of dispensing overheated soundbites--not long ago he rushed to Terri Schiavo's deathbed and then later concluded that she had been "executed"--invigorates his evangelical base but alienates almost everyone else. The same will probably prove true of the senator's new book.

Ambitious in scope, lazy in execution, It Takes a Family peddles a collection of calcified social prescriptions and chicken-soup-for-the-soul style anecdotes. Santorum announces early on that his original intention was to write a book "focused exclusively on the poor." That topic, however, turned out to be too constrictive, and he instead embraced a more capacious project, one with space for all of society's ills--including liberalism, divorce, gay marriage, Hollywood movies, public education, federal taxes, and peer-to-peer file sharing. And because Santorum had so much to tackle, he organized his manifesto around the "five pillars of American civilization"--social capital, economic capital, moral capital, cultural capital, and intellectual capital. It apparently does not trouble Santorum, who elsewhere bemoans the liberal trust in "money alone [as] the answer," to describe all of American civilization in the argot of the marketplace. It is, after all, a system of values, and Santorum likes those very much.

The five pillars stand strong, but they endure constant assaults from Democrats, whom Santorum has deemed the "village elders," a nod to his colleague Hillary Clinton's own tract, It Takes a Village. This contemptible lot envisions itself "the postmodern kings of the masses" who "practically despise the common man." To wit: "They seem to think that if you would choose to go to a NASCAR race instead of The Vagina Monologues you are a completely unenlightened soul." Elitism of this sort is verboten on the right, and to prove it, Santorum pauses to define potentially unfamiliar words for his readers. So before he makes use of the terms "stewardship" and "patrimony," he reflects that "[t]hose are two words we don't use everyday." Other phrases are described as "a fancy way of talking." And if still further clarity is required, the senator sometimes has a Lord of the Rings analogy on hand. Everyone knows who Gondor is, right?

Santorum's ginger administrations to his readers also include omitting endnotes altogether. At 449 statistics-dense pages, It Takes a Family, according to the bibliographical note at the end, is "already a very long book" and citations would have made it "just too long." Very considerate, and particularly so since Santorum doesn't really rely on statistics for authority. For that he apparently has Bartlett's. There is hardly a page in this book for which the senator did not pluck out a perfectly gratuitous quote. Santorum's arguments may be mere vapors, but here is Bono seeming to concur, and here Walker Percy shaping the identical thought into a tidy epigram, and there a character from the film Barcelona echoing Santorum's very complaints about our culture. It's rather ingenious--Santorum has discovered how to create consensus in the absence of actual agreement.

This innovation may be the secret to Santorum's political success as well. He has managed, both as senator and author, to give his highly idiosyncratic beliefs the contours of popular opinion. He is at odds with American voters, even many Republican voters, on everything from environmental regulation to end-of-life care. But he represents himself as a member of the much-maligned mainstream. It Takes a Family purports to school us in "the common good." But it also suggests why Santorum may soon be all alone.

Keelin McDonell is a writer for The New Republic.