Over his political career, Western Pennsylvania's own Rick Santorum has made some remarkable statements. There's the time he decried "the weird socialization" kids get in public school. There was that whole "man-on-dog" thing. But among his most remarkable utterances is one he made while campaigning recently in New Hampshire:
"There are countries in Western Europe where you're more able to rise through the ranks of income ... than you are now here in America."
Coming from a Republican, that's a shocking statement for at least two reasons. First, it's actually true: The Economic Mobility Project, a project of the Pew Charitable Trusts, has found that it's much easier to change your income bracket in countries like Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Germany. Second, Republicans have spent years insisting Europe is a socialist dystopia, where the human spirit withers inside filthy government-run hospitals. How can Europeans have more economic freedom?
It's not as if Santorum wants to emulate Europe, of course. His actual economic policies would preserve sharp distinctions in wealth. According to the Tax Policy Center, for example, his tax proposals would give the wealthiest 0.1 percent of households a tax cut of $1.3 million a year; middle-class homes would get about $2,000, while the deficit mushroomed.
And not surprisingly, Santorum doesn't mention Europe much anymore. It was one thing to talk about income disparity when he was a dark horse. But as other Republican contenders have faltered, he's become the party front-runner. So in the best GOP tradition, instead of offering voters a chance to help themselves up, he's focusing on keeping others down.
Starting with women.
Santorum has seized on President Barack Obama's plan to require all employers — including religiously affiliated hospitals and schools — to cover contraception in the insurance they offer employees.
Catholic bishops objected, and Santorum rushed to their aid: Government shouldn't "forc[e] them to do something that they think is a grievous moral wrong" with their own money, he argued. A Catholic himself, Santorum has said that contraception is "not OK because it's a license to do things ... counter to how things are supposed to be."
Polls suggest few Americans agree with Santorum, or with the bishops. Why should they? Everyone's money sometimes is spent on things they oppose; ask any taxpaying peace activist. And obviously, when it comes to policing employees' sexual conduct, the bishops' judgment has been, well, uneven.
But this won't stop with birth control, or with women.
Santorum also opposes requiring employers to cover prenatal testing like amniocentesis. Why? As he told CBS News' Bob Schieffer, "[F]ree prenatal testing ends up in more abortions" because it can diagnose birth defects, allowing us to "cull the ranks of the disabled."
So this isn't just about medicine that your employer opposes. It's about procedures that, while not objectionable themselves, might lead to decisions your employer disapproves of.
What's next? If a cancer diagnosis might tempt one to suicide — against church dogma — would Santorum oppose covering the cost of biopsies? What if someday a treatment based on human stem cells — another church-opposed technology — could rescue you from Parkinson's? Or treat your child for Down syndrome your employer didn't pay to diagnose in the womb?
If conservatives really wanted to lower abortion rates, they might look — again — to Europe. According to 2007 United Nations data, countries like Denmark — which tend to have much more centralized health coverage — have abortion rates up to two-thirds lower than those in the U.S.
But this isn't about protecting religious values. It's about treating your boss' whims as if they were inscribed in Holy Writ. That's why Republicans are pushing legislation to allow any employer, not just churches, to pare back coverage they object to.
For all his professed anti-elitism, Santorum and other Republicans are desperately protecting the elites they prefer: the bishops, the bosses, the powerful. The only elite Santorum truly threatens, in fact, is the one that we the people actually have some control over: our government. Beneath the sweater vest and aw-shucks demeanor, he's intent on shucking you of your rights.
But say this for Santorum: He's not subtle. You know what you're going to get ... and if he becomes President, America will get what it deserves. Europe, meanwhile, will look better every day.