How would America change in a Santorum administration?

Santorum has his name emblazoned on the side of this car in the Daytona 500, but Mitt Romney - son of an auto-industry executive - was a no-show.
Santorum has his name emblazoned on the side of this car in the Daytona 500, but Mitt Romney - son of an auto-industry executive - was a no-show. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Posted: February 28, 2012

THE SUN hasn't even set, and already Jan. 20, 2013, is going down as the wildest presidential Inauguration Day in more than three decades, since the Gipper declared that "government is the problem" and the Ayatollah freed the hostages.

After taking on the ghost of JFK in his inaugural address - "Ask what you can do for your family, your God, and yourself . . . free from the tyranny of government" - President Rick Santorum raced back to the White House to sign more than a dozen executive orders.

The new 45th president cut off federal funding for many overseas family-planning programs, steered new dollars into abstinence-only education and created "conscience exemptions" allowing institutions to opt out of Obama health-care reforms.

Then, as Santorum was throwing on a tuxedo for his inaugural ball featuring Up With People, an aide knocked on the door. "Ahmadinejad just closed down the Strait of Hormuz!" - a speedy reaction to the new president's bellicose talk on Iran.

The Santorum administration.

Those three words would have been a laugh-out-loud joke in November 2006, when voters here in the Republican's home state of Pennsylvania rejected the two-term incumbent by a staggering 18 percentage points.

But, in February 2012 - with some polls showing the self-styled five-star general in America's culture war now in front for the GOP nomination - the notion of a President Santorum is no longer a laughing matter. A victory in tonight's Michigan primary - where polls show Santorum neck-and-neck with native son Mitt Romney - would better those odds.

But how would, gulp, a President Rick Santorum actually govern?

Would the Santorum administration really be a four-year-long jihad against birth control, gay marriage and the influence of Satan, punctuated by occasional cruise-missile launches over the Persian Gulf, as feared by his harshest critics on the left?

Or would the sweater vest in the Oval Office revert to a kinder, gentler brand of conservatism - the kind that Philadelphia voters saw flashes of in his 2000 re-election campaign, when he talked up his support for senior citizens?

The radical right-wing presidency is the notion that captures the public imagination - especially as Santorum woos right-wing primary voters by bashing the separation of church and state, and accuses colleges of "liberal indoctrination."

James Hilty, the Temple University history professor and presidential scholar, said that the conditions needed for a Santorum victory over President Obama in November would also probably mean GOP gains in Congress, which would aid a conservative agenda. Added Hilty: "I would imagine a wholesale undoing of Obama policies, beginning, of course, with repeal of health-care reform and Dodd-Frank," the Wall Street rules enacted by Congress and Obama in 2010.

Jon Delano, the Pittsburgh-based political pundit who teaches at Carnegie-Mellon University and has known Santorum since 1988, believes that the politician will not veer to the center but try to keep his promises to evangelical voters and tea-party activists rallying behind him now.

"I don't think you're going to see anything different from what he is today," said Delano, who believes that Santorum's rare zigzags into moderation are in the rear-view mirror.

The former Pennsylvanian insists that his planned initial act in the White House would be an impossible mission: Undoing the 2010 health-care reform that opponents have branded as "Obamacare."

"Repeal Obamacare - it's the job killer; it's the freedom killer; it really transforms our country into a socialist state, and we can't have that," Santorum recently told an interviewer who asked what he'd do first in the Oval Office. He also said that he'd push for tax reform - he wants to drastically reduce corporate levies and zero them out for manufacturing - and "crisscross the country" to woo the public on a balanced-budget amendment.

But all of those moves - especially repealing health-care reform - require major doses of congressional action, and Democrats will have more than 40 votes to use the filibuster to block any radical measures. It's also hard to see Santorum getting the votes for a "Personhood Amendment" granting 14th Amendment protection to embryos.

So, experts say that a Santorum administration would be heavy on moves that don't require approval on Capitol Hill - executive orders, regulatory rollbacks and foreign policy. For example:

Abortion and birth control. Caitlin Borgmann, a law professor at the City University of New York, who writes frequently on reproductive rights, said that Santorum would surely reinstate the so-called "Global Gag Rule" barring foreign aid to groups that encourage abortion. She said that he'd likely seek similar rules on domestic social programs.

Health care. While key aspects of the Obama plan can't be undone without Congress - requiring insurance coverage for pre-existing conditions, for example - major pieces could be rolled back by a hostile Health and Human Services secretary or by an end to the funding of elements like the health exchanges that would extend coverage to the uninsured.

Foreign affairs. Santorum generally supports military action to impede Iran's nuclear program, and that could happen in the early weeks of his presidency. Juan Cole, professor of Middle East studies at the University of Michigan, added that he'd put the kibosh on any new Israel-Palestinian peace talks. "I think he would be to the right of most Israelis," said Cole.

Santorum would surely expand oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere while preventing new rules to regulate so-called "fracking" for natural gas in rural Pennsylvania and elsewhere.

But the biggest impact of a President Santorum remains a wild card - the future of four Supreme Court justices, including liberals Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, who'll be age 74 or older in 2013.


Contact Will Bunch at 215-854-2957 or bunchw@ phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @Will_Bunch. Read his blog, "Attytood" at www.attytood.com.

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