TIME Newsmaker Interview

Interview: Rick Santorum Eyes 2016

Rick Santorum takes the stage to speak during day two of the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in National Harbor, Md.
Rick Santorum takes the stage to speak during day two of the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in National Harbor, Md., March 7, 2014. Lexey Swall—GRAIN for TIME

In an interview with TIME, the former Pennsylvania senator who finished second to Romney in 2012 says he's sure he would have defeated Obama had he won the GOP nomination. He also previews some of the themes he might emphasize should he run for president in 2016

Two years after finishing second to Mitt Romney in the 2012 Republican presidential primary, Rick Santorum sounds like he’s ready to try again.

In a wide-ranging interview with TIME on Thursday, the former Pennsylvania senator said he was sure he would have defeated Barack Obama had he won the Republican nomination, panned the President’s foreign policy (“what he’s done is start a nuclear arms race”) and offered a preview of a potential 2016 message that might help Republicans connect with “the average guy.”

Santorum, a longtime social-issues warrior who won 11 primary and caucus states two years ago, said he won’t have to talk as much about them if he runs again, because his conservative positions are well known to the GOP’s base. “This time around I don’t have to go out and prove by bona fides on being a conservative,” he says. “I can focus in on how I differentiate myself from the rest of the field and how I think we can develop a winning message for the fall.”

Even Santorum’s current gig as CEO of the Christian movie company Echolight Studios serves, in some ways, as preparation for another try at the GOP nomination. “I’m a storyteller. I see this in some respects as refining my craft,” he says. “Reagan did it the other way, right?”

Below are excerpts of the conversation, condensed and edited for clarity:

Have you gotten the itch to get back into politics?

Absolutely. I can’t sit here and watch our country decline in stature as dramatically as it has in the last five years and not be concerned about the future of America. I just look at the overall culture of the country and see a lot of people who are fearful, don’t believe that good times are coming, feel like there are people out there left behind. That’s a very dangerous thing for a democracy.

With regard to Crimea, what would you do differently than Obama?

It’s really important to understand this situation didn’t happen overnight. This was five years in the making. Year one, we pull our missile defense system out of Poland and the Czech Republic. So we send a signal: we’re going to reset with Russia, and Putin is going to work with us. What do we get for that? Virtually nothing.

So you go through a whole variety of other things—from what we did in Iran during the revolution, which was nothing; turning our back on Mubarak; what we did in Syria. I would not have drawn a red line on chemical weapons. I thought it was a mistake to do it. But he did. And he didn’t follow through. He punted to Putin. What we’ve seen over time is the President serially deferring, backing away from red lines or lines in the sand, saying that the US needs not to be involved in all these things. You send a signal.

This president has singlehandedly elevated Vladimir Putin from a babysitter over a bunch of oligarchs to a world leader who’s now grabbing territory with no consequence. What can you do now given this? Well, you can try to repair an image, to show you mean what you say and you will stand by the countries that we have promised to stand by. We have not done so in Ukraine. So now what do you think if you’re Lithuania, Estonia, Poland? What do you think if you’re Georgia? You think the U.S.’s commitments aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. And as a result of that, you start having to make deals with the devil. And then things really get out of hand.

Here’s a president whose main goal is stopping nuclear proliferation, to get a deal with the Russians, which was a bad deal that gave the Russians a decided edge in nuclear weapons – that was his big thing, START II. And what he’s done is start a nuclear arms race because the U.S. is not standing by its commitments.

It’s not only Barack Obama who has been advocating a more cautious foreign policy. It’s also Republicans.

Agreed. You’ve seen me out there taking on the Paul faction. I did during the campaign. I took on Ron Paul at debate after debate on Iran, on Pakistan. I see the Rand Paul wing of the Republican Party for what it is: allied with Barack Obama’s foreign policy. I think that’s a very serious threat to our own security.

How do you convince the young voters this faction is reaching out to that this is the wrong course?

What we have to do is have the people who believe in the conservative message go out and articulate a positive vision for the country based on those principles. You can deliver a positive message for the country on national security without saying we need to be in a war in every country. Which of course we can’t do, and we wouldn’t. But that doesn’t mean we need to disengage. There’s a cost to disengagement.

There was a lot of soul-searching within the party after Romney lost. What’s the best thing the GOP has done since, and what has been the worst?

In both cases, Obamacare. The objective of focusing on Obamacare is the right thing; the tactics [that led to the shutdown] were not well thought-out. And the problem is it created a division within the Republican Party that doesn’t do us any good. It created a black hole right before their black hole, which was the implementation of Obamacare. Why would you create that moment right before it becomes apparent to the American public that you were right?

Do you think you would have beaten Obama?

Without a doubt.

Why?

Because I would have been able to attract the voters in the states that mattered. Romney would probably do better than me in New Jersey and California and New York. But I’d do better in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Virginia—in the states that were going to decide the election. Look at how we did in Ohio in the primary. We got outspent by huge amounts. I didn’t run a single ad in the Cleveland market, and we still almost beat him in Ohio.

If you ran again in two years, how would you do things differently?

I’d raise a lot more money. We’d have to have a stronger team, and a stronger fundraising base. [In 2012,] I had to establish myself in the conservative world as sort of the authentic conservative across the board, including moral and cultural issues. A lot of people didn’t know that much about me and my positions on those issues. So I had to, on occasion, talk about it. And of course any time I did, there’s Santorum out there talking about social issues.

By the time it got down to me and Romney, I talked mostly about Obamacare on the campaign trail. But I was able to talk more about the blue-collar stuff, energy and manufacturing. Things like that really started to create some momentum for us. But by then, I was the social conservative candidate, the alternative to Romney. And what I said and the policies that I put forward, they just didn’t get any coverage. This time around I don’t have to go out and prove by bona fides on being a conservative. I can focus in on how I differentiate myself from the rest of the field and how I think we can develop a winning message for the fall.

What’s your sense of the 2016 field?

I’m the guy that sat there last time and watched seven people go to the top of the pack and fall.

There might be twelve this time.

You know what, they can get to the top of the pack and fall too. One of the things I know is that when I got to the top of the pack I didn’t fall. I ran out of money, and I ran out of time. And the forces were against me. It’s tough running against City Hall.

The amazing thing, here we are looking at 2016, and many of the national polls don’t even put my name on the list. They review the candidates, and I’m not included on the list of people who they look at, which I sort of get a kick out of. It’s sort of been my strength over the course of my political career that I’m always underestimated. Always. The Democrats did that for a long time and I won four straight races. And now it’s happening on the Republican side.

What lessons does Pope Francis offer to conservatives?

There have been a lot of people who have been led astray, doctrinally and otherwise, by the liberalism of the Church, the scandals within the Church. And what Francis is saying is look, what they just need to hear is the good news. They need to hear that God loves them, and that here’s the Gospel and the Gospel’s for you. And so he’s tried to focus his message on the average guy. And so I think that’s a good message for Republicans.

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