In New Orleans, Santorum Runs For Conscience Of The GOP

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Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum wants to tell you he’s sorry. The arch-conservative is one of a number of former Republican party figures in the early stages of potential runs for president, and in a speech before the Southern Republican Leadership conference this afternoon, he tried to separate himself from the pack by making a play for the job of the GOP’s Jiminy Cricket.

Where most Republican speeches these days are focused on the wrongs President Obama and the Democrats have inflicted on every facet of American life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (as long as you don’t have a preexisting condition, that is), Santorum spent most of his time on the podium talking about the mistakes Republicans made that led to their defeat in both 2006 and 2008. He’s not the only Republican out there talking about that, of course, but his speech today was more self-reflexive than most.

“We failed America,” Santorum told the crowd of Republicans in New Orleans. “People stopped believing in us.”Santorum said that the tea party movement (which he said was “on the verge” of changing the very political makeup of the country) partially stemmed from conservative anger that Republicans spent too much when they were in charge.

“I see a singular force and resolve among the American people,” he said. “And it can’t just be about more government. You know why? Let’s be honest, we were guilty of more government when we were in charge.”

Santorum said it was no surprise that Republicans lost their electoral edge, and that only by getting back to core values can Republicans hope to win over the frustrated protest movement on the right.

“Conservatism didn’t fail America,” he said to cheers. “Conservatives failed conservatism.”

While his rhetoric about what went wrong in the GOP might be new, Santorum’s prescription for setting things right is not. A down-to-the-bone social conservative who is probably best known on the national stage as the guy who said Americans don’t have a right to privacy when it comes to consensual sex in their own homes, it’s no surprise that his plan to fix America is to return the national focus back to to what he calls its real “founding documents.”

“I’m not talking about just our founding documents,” he said. “I’m talking about the founding documents upon which our founding documents were based. We are a people of western civilization founded upon the Bible.”

Unfortunately for Santorum, while he may be best known among most Americans for making statements just like that one, he is best known among Republicans for endorsing Arlen Specter over Pat Toomey in the 2004 Pennsylvania GOP Senate primary. He might have expected his bid for conscience of the GOP would meet with skepticism when he opened up the floor for questions after his speech.

The first came from a Georgian woman who said she lived in Pennsylvania when Santorum, along with President Bush, decided to throw their weight behind Specter who was then a moderate Republican running against the conservative Toomey. (Both men are likely to go another round this fall when likely Democratic nominee Specter faces off against likely GOP nominee Toomey in a rematch of that ’04 primary that Toomey currently leads according to polls.) The decision put Santorum at odds with many conservatives in his party, who felt like his endorsement of the pro-choice Specter was a betrayal of their support.

The woman at the Q&A told Santorum that, though she liked his speech, she still considered his decision to back Specter in 2004 to be “one of the most disheartening times for me in politics.”

Hoisted on his own petard, Santorum tried to return the conversation to conservative purity.

“I tried and failed,” he said of the decision to endorse Specter, appealing to his Christian base with a tale of how he “prayed over” the move before backing Specter. He even tried to make a joke out of the affair, claiming his wife had warned him against backing the incumbent Specter and that “after 20 years, you’d think I’d listen to her.”

But then he dropped the contrition of his speech and switched into full-on politician mode, defending his decision to endorse the far more electable (until this year) Specter against the far less electable (until this year) Toomey as an act of political necessity predicated on maintaining the Republican party’s slim majority in the Senate in anticipation of Supreme Court nominations.

“I got a commitment from Arlen Specter that no matter who George W. Bush would nominate, he would support that nominee,” Santorum said.

“You can question my judgment,” he told the upset woman and her fellow conservatives in the room. “But don’t question my intention to do what’s right for those little babies.”

Note: This post has been updated since it was first publication.

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