I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to think Senator Rick Santorum doesn’t play well with others. It was all in good fun for a while. There was his 2005 book It Takes a Family, in which Santorum called public schooling a “mass aberration.” (“It’s amazing that so many kids turn out to be fairly normal, considering the weird socialization they get in public schools,” he sagely observed.) A couple years before that, he suggested liberals were to blame for priest-abuse scandals: In a 2002 story, he argued that “Priests, like all of us, are infected by culture.” And so, “It’s no surprise that Boston, a seat of ... liberalism in America, lies at the center of the storm.” Plus, Boston priests had that curse of the Bambino to deal with.

But lately, it seems like Senator Santorum is getting kind of weird.

Take this year’s May primary, for example. Santorum owns a house in Penn Hills, where he’s registered to vote. But as one of his neighbors told reporters, the Santorum family seems to spend very little time there. There were, the neighbor told KDKA-TV, “no curtains [or] furniture” visible in the home.

That would hardly be surprising. It’s no secret that Santorum and his family own a much larger home in suburban Virginia, or that they spend most of their time there. But the next thing you know, Santorum is accusing his neighbor of “thuggery” ... and demanding the Capitol Police make sure that the home is secure. So the police travel all the way from Washington D.C. -- where they’d ordinarily be watching out for, you know, terrorists and stuff -- and check the locks of his vacant home.

Your tax dollars at work, folks. The FBI may be infiltrating the Penn Hills Welcome Wagon even as we speak.

I’ll admit: It was funny to hear Santorum complain that his privacy had been invaded. Because when it comes to people’s bedrooms, at least, he doesn’t think there is a right to privacy. His book contends that the right to privacy is a “pure abstraction” created by liberal judges. And in his famous 2003 “man on dog” interview he claimed that, if the courts granted adults the right to sexual privacy in their homes, it would be a license to commit incest and bestiality.

In other words, Santorum supports the government’s power to kick down your bedroom door. But if a neighbor notices the lack of curtains in the living-room window? That’s thuggery.

But all this raises a question. If this is what Santorum thinks of his neighbors -- that we’re a mass of public-school “aberrations” itching for an excuse to commit bestiality and ogle his furniture -- should he be representing us in Congress? Come to think of it, is he representing us in Congress? For all intents and purposes he lives in Virginia. And the biggest moral crusade of his Senate term involved Terri Schiavo, a brain-dead woman in Florida. Meanwhile, more than 1 million Pennsylvanians lack health insurance back home. But you don’t see Santorum staging photo ops on their behalf.

Here’s what I think: If Rick Santorum thinks we’re that horrible, we should just put him out of his misery. On Election Day this November, we can elect his Democratic rival, state Treasurer Bob Casey. That will free up Congress to deal with genuine issues for a change. And it will free up Santorum to move someplace where they don’t have fluoride in the water.

I’ll be honest: Like many liberals, I didn’t rush to embrace Casey, largely because he opposes abortion rights. Early on, in fact, I got a sinking feeling in my stomach about his whole campaign. Here the Democrats were ... trying to beat the Republicans with a candidate who skews conservative on a key social issue. Haven’t we tried this before?

But actually, things aren’t that dire. Or that simple.

Like Santorum, Bob Casey is a Catholic whose beliefs demand a pro-life position. But unlike Santorum, Casey’s Bible seems to have all its pages intact. He hasn’t, for example, torn out the chapters where prophets demand leaders take care of the poor. Casey shares his church’s beliefs on abortion, yes. But he also shares its belief in protecting the dignity of working people. That’s why he favors increasing the minimum wage -- something Santorum opposes -- and protecting programs like Social Security. That’s why Casey has the strong support of unions across the state.

The thing is, as a social and economic liberal, I believe women have a fundamental right to make decisions about their bodies. But I also believe working people have a fundamental right to earn a decent wage. Logically, I can’t sacrifice either of these rights for the other -- that’s what makes them both fundamental. But in reality, I make those decisions almost every time I set foot in a voting booth. It’s just that usually, I’ve voted for a pro-choice candidate who downplayed economic issues, rather than the other way around.

And there’s another reason to vote for Casey. He supports civil unions. And I believe same-sex couples have a fundamental right to be treated equally under the law.

Some gay-rights activists see civil unions as a form of second-class citizenship; it’s not “marriage,” though it confers similar legal benefits. Theirs is a principled position. But so is Bob Casey’s. Think about how easy it would be for him to abandon gays entirely, the way so many politicians in both parties have. This spring, for example, dozens of Democrats in Harrisburg voted to amend the state Constitution and ban civil unions pre-emptively, before they’ve even been created. It’s nothing but election-year pandering. But Bob Casey is standing by his principles.

Think about this too: Santorum is already using those principles to mobilize homophobic Republicans. Here’s a Democrat doing what so many of us have begged Democrats to do: Taking a stand on a tough issue. It would be tragic if that stand motivated only those who oppose him. Casey may not support us on a woman’s right to choose, but many gays and lesbians have done so for years. This election gives the rest of us a chance to return the favor.

See, this is only partly about Bob Casey and Rick Santorum. It’s also about you and me, and about the kind of politics we want to have after Santorum is gone.

Politicians like Santorum have ruled -- I won’t say governed -- by tearing us apart. Santorum entered the Senate in 1994 after beating Harris Wofford, one of the first politicians in Washington to sound the alarm about rising health-care costs. In the 12 years since, as Santorum and his allies have gained power, the problem has only gotten worse. But you and I aren’t supposed to notice that. You and I are supposed to fight about Terri Schiavo instead. We’re supposed to stay divided over a small set of wedge issues.

But fixing the health-care system requires reaching out to all kinds of people. The same is true if we want equality for same-sex couples. And there’s the rub: We’ll need the help of leaders we don’t always agree with, because there aren’t enough of the other kind -- yet.

I know a lot of Democrats who are frustrated by that fact -- Democrats who see Casey as “Santorum Lite.” It’s not hard to see why. There’s the abortion issue, of course. And in a state as hunting-friendly as Pennsylvania, neither Casey nor Santorum are going to be pushing for gun control.

On the other hand, Santorum’s support for hunting extends only as far as the gun. Casey, by contrast, also wants forests healthy enough to hunt in. That’s why he has the support of environmentalists like the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters (which noted that “at virtually every turn, Rick Santorum has voted against the environment.”) And it can be helpful to have a Senator with credibility among gun owners and environmentalists alike. Working together, those groups have helped bring about reforms like Pennsylvania’s Growing Greener II, which has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for environmental programs statewide.

If we’re going to continue that progress -- fighting sprawl and removing toxins like mercury from our air and water -- such coalitions need to be maintained and strengthened. Can Bob Casey help? He sure has a better shot at it than Rick Santorum.

Maybe that’s not enough for you. Maybe you still think Bob Casey is nothing more than “Santorum Lite.” If so, I’ll finish by asking: Would electing “Santorum Lite” really be so bad?

Look at it this way: If you could wave your hand and transform Santorum into a Senator who cares about life outside the womb, wouldn’t you do it? If you could turn him into someone who can find a place for same-sex couples in his theology, wouldn’t you do it? If, with a flick of the wrist, you could turn him into someone who didn’t embarrass the entire state, wouldn’t you do it? I’m here to tell you: On November 7, you can.

— Chris Potter


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