Mayan Campaign Mashup 2012: Santorum’s choices

8 01 2012

In 1996, Rick Santorum’s wife Karen had a difficult pregnancy.

The health of the fetus severely compromised, she decided to undergo surgery to correct the problems; this surgery led to a life-threatening infection, which in turn led to a course of antibiotics which had the (known) effect of starting labor. Doctors then gave her a drug to bring the labor along, resulting in the early delivery of a 20-week old fetus the Santorums named Gabriel.

Prior to the surgery, Karen Santorum was adamant that she wanted doctors to do everything possible to try to save the pregnancy; even after she agreed to take the antibiotics, she and her husband hoped that the fetus could be saved, to the point that Santorum initially refused the Pitocin which sped up labor. However, Santorum admitted that had labor not resulted, she would—reluctantly—have agreed to an abortion to save her life.

The fetus, named Gabriel, lived for two hours. After his death, the Santorums took him home to their then-three (they now have seven) children so that they could  “absorb and understand that they had a brother.”

Karen Santorum later wrote on book on the experience, Letters to Gabriel, and the experience apparently reinforced her husband’s views against abortion.

Three points:

1. It is good that Karen Santorum had the choice to decide how to deal with a difficult pregnancy, including the choice to risk her own life.

The person who has to live with the consequences of any decision ought to be the one to make that decision.

2. It is a dicey matter to criticize how people mourn. Eugene Robinson and Alan Colmes have come in for a great deal of criticism for mocking the Santorums for bringing the dead fetus home. While both Robinson and Colmes seem more weirded out by rather than contemptuous of the Santorums, they both imply that Santorum’s action reflects poorly on his ability to lead.

I have nothing good to say about Santorum, not one damned thing, but I also strongly believe in judging public officials by their public actions. Even shitty politicians get to have a personal life, whatever the shape of that personal life may be.

And as an aside, I don’t know how weird it is to bring a loved one’s corpse home. In most cases, of course, this isn’t an option, but into the 20th century in the US many of us dealt with our own dead. Perhaps there were those in the community who were called upon to help wash and prepare the body, but death in the home was not uncommon.

And in some sense both the right-to-die and the hospice movements (which are usually in political opposition) have reacted against the depersonalization of death in their efforts to allow people a decent death at home. I am among those who would prefer to bring death home, to see death as the end of life, not separate from it. Whatever my view of the status of the fetus, I don’t know that the urge of the Santorums to bring what they considered their son’s body home is really all that strange.

It seems quite human.

3. Anything goes, winning is the only thing, whatever you can get away with—I don’t take back a word of it. While I might think it politically dicey to bring up Santorum’s actions in this matter, I don’t think it’s out of bounds, mainly because I don’t think anything is out of bounds. My own personal beliefs on the respect for privacy have nothing to do with observations on political tactics, and in political campaigns, anything that can be used, will be used.

This is even more the case when you refer to your personal life in order to score political points. If, like Santorum, you use you and your wife’s ordeal to buttress your political attacks on abortion, then you transform that ordeal into political fodder, fodder which may now legitimately raked over and flung back at you.

There’s a big foggy territory between the personal and public for politicians. Yes, their minor children (and grandchildren) are used in photo ops and they may make occasional jokey references to something that their kids said or heard, but such uses are stylistic tropes, and are generally ignored, as are generic references to family in order to humanize oneself. When the politician goes deep into, say, a family tragedy, whether we see the person as been courageous and honest or cynical and conniving, and how the story can be used politically, likely depends on our views of the politician in the first place.

This is where the the “can be used/will be used” meets the “whatever works”: Will going after your opponent’s personal life help or hurt your campaign? If bringing up his personal life helps you, you do it; if it is likely to spark a backlash and hurt you, you don’t. That’s it.

It is noteworthy that those who criticized the Santorums’ decision are pundits, not anyone connected to any campaigns. The other candidates or their strategists might also think this is (further) evidence for his unfitness, but they will keep their lips zipped because there is nothing to be gained and too much to lose. That calculus is what regulates their behavior—period.

The point is to win.