A College Paper by Rick Santorum- and What It Says About His Political Evolution
This past weekend, Rick Santorum briefly elevated his college years to a focal point of his campaign. “I went through it at Penn State,” he said Sunday. “You talk to most kids who go to college who are conservatives, and you are singled out, you are ridiculed.” He added that he “went through a process where I was docked for my conservative views.”
As it turned out, I had spent much of the past week talking to people from Santorum’s past, including several of his college friends and professors. One of the professors I had been speaking to—political scientist Bob O’Connor, who taught Santorum in four different classes—thought his allegation was absurd. “He really has a rich fantasy life,” O’Connor told me yesterday via email. “PSU in the 1970s was not exactly Berkeley. I resent this sort of accusation [that] I and my colleagues graded students on the basis of their political attitudes. Ridiculous.”
But whether or not Santorum received lower grades because of his conservatism, there remains the broader question of what his college years were really like. Recently, O’Connor gave me a piece of evidence that bears on this question: a 17-page term paper Santorum wrote during his senior year, which O’Connor oversaw as part of an independent study. (You can read the whole thing here.)
The paper was about the rising influence of political action committees (PACs) in Pennsylvania politics. Santorum and his co-author interviewed dozens of Congressmen, staffers, and political operatives to produce a survey of PACs’ goals, operations, and impact. Their findings included: “The money, potential manpower, and, in some cases, political expertise that PACs provide can decide who wins an election. This is a high trump that the lobbyist for the parent organization can and will play to enhance his position with a legislator.” The effect of PACs on legislation was currently minimal, Santorum and his partner concluded, but the potential impact was huge: “It is our belief that with the advent of the independent candidate and voter, and the resulting decline of the party system, this state seems destined to be increasingly influenced by special interests.” Their conclusion seems to warn that this will not be a good development for democracy: “Efforts of groups like Common Cause attack only the symtoms of the real problem at hand, the survival of the political system as we know it,” they argued. “It will take a change in the attitudes of Pennsylvanians to reverse this movement. The day of interest group pluralism is dawning in Pennsylvania.”
The tone of the paper is mostly restrained and methodical, though in a few cases what sounds like it could be a hint of Santorum’s overly dramatic rhetorical style—today his political signature—seems to come through. (“A PAC must neither be a political whore, selling itself to winning candidates, nor, a political martyr, dying on the cross of ideological purity,” reads one passage.)
But more significantly, the paper, with its detailed discussion of the process of politics, is arguably the latest confirmation of something that the media has lately begun to discover, or rather rediscover, about Santorum: The man who is arguably America’s foremost culture warrior was—for much of his early career, including his four years at Penn State—less an ideologue than a political tactician.