Is Santorum a “big government conservative”?

posted at 1:30 pm on January 4, 2012 by Ed Morrissey

When one becomes a front-runner, the scrutiny starts — and Rick Santorum has just stepped into the arena with a surprising and inspiring finish in Iowa.  His reward? The closer look every second-tier desires and dreads as a consequence of getting called up to the majors.  David Harsanyi spells out the case for conservatives looking to oppose Santorum, calling him a “conservative technocrat”:

Rick Santorum, like most Republican candidates, fashions himself the one true conservative running in 2012. If the thought of big, intrusive liberal government offends you, he might just be your man. And if you favor a big, intrusive Republican government, he’s unquestionably your candidate.

People are taking a look at Santorum. Important people. People in Iowa. Even New York Times columnist David Brooks recently celebrated his working-class appeal, newfound viability and economic populism, noting that the former Pennsylvania senator’s book “It Takes a Family“ was a ”broadside against Barry Goldwater-style conservatism” — or, in other words, a rejection of that Neanderthal fealty for liberty and free markets that has yet to be put down. Santorum’s book is crammed with an array of ideas for technocratic meddling; even the author acknowledges that some people “will reject” what he has to say “as a kind of ‘Big Government’ conservatism.”

Santorum grumbles about too many conservatives believing in unbridled “personal autonomy” and subscribing to the “idea that people should be left alone, be able to do whatever they want to do … that we shouldn’t get involved in the bedroom (and) we shouldn’t get involved in cultural issues.” …

Today, Santorum tells voters that Medicare is “crushing” the “entire health care system.” In 2003, Santorum voted for the Medicare drug entitlement that costs taxpayers more than $60 billion a year and almost $16 trillion in unfunded liabilities. Santorum voted for the 2005 “bridge to nowhere” bill and was an earmark enthusiast his entire career.

These days, Santorum regularly joins a chorus of voices claiming that he would greatly reduce the role of federal government in local education. When he had a say, he supported No Child Left Behind and expanded the federal control of school systems. In his book, in fact, Santorum advocates dictating a certain curriculum to all schools. The right kind. It’s not the authority of government that irks him, but rather the content of the material Washington is peddling today.

Fair points all, and these will get threshed out in the next couple of weeks, as they should.  Of all the candidates, Rick Perry made the best mainstream anti-Washington argument, but turned out to be a poor debater and a questionable campaigner.  Bachmann probably came second, and look where the two of them ended up in Iowa, and where they polled in the “Live Free or Die” state of New Hampshire.  Ron Paul gets a brief but positive mention in Harsanyi’s piece — but only on his foreign policy, which is anathema to most Republicans.  Like it or not, the candidates this time around who have accrued support have mainly been those that represent the establishment-centric viewpoint, a point Jonah Goldberg also makes:

For the last month or so we’ve heard a lot of posturing about the “conservative establishment.” I’ve been pretty skeptical about the uses and abuses of the term. But now that Rick Santorum has replaced Newt Gingrich as the anti-Mitt frontrunner, the term seems even more stale. Santorum has many strengths (and weaknesses), but let’s not insult our intelligence. He is no Washington outsider. The guy has been a fixture of the conservative and Republican establishment — however you want to define the term — for decades. A congressman, senator,  radio show host, author, Fox News contributor, leader in the 1994 Contract with America movement, activist, lobbyist, earmarker, endorser of Arlen Specter: This is not some tea party unknown. …

The simple fact is that none of these candidates are ideal and nearly everyone not writing-in Calvin Coolidge is compromising. The problem is people don’t want to admit they’re compromising.

If you want pure anti-establishment, then Ron Paul is your man in this cycle.  None of these candidates are without serious flaws, but then again, there really aren’t ever any flawless candidates.  Do we aspire to find the least flawed, most capable candidate in the race in primaries?  Of course, but that is always graded on a curve, in every cycle.

Santorum’s prescriptions for government solutions for conservative goals should be given a close look, but also, we should hear what Santorum has to say about how he proposes to move forward with them if elected.  Until now, no one has paid much attention to Santorum, so he has not had much time to make his case.  Harsanyi raises good points, and how Santorum responds will determine whether he can attract a wide base of support or follow the same path of “compassionate conservatism” that provided a dead end to Republicans and conservatives in the last decade.  At this point, Santorum’s credentials on the “conservative” part has me at least willing to hear him out.

Can Santorum perform well enough in New Hampshire to get an extended look?  Lois Romano thinks the odds are long, but not impossible, and points out the strong Catholic presence in New Hampshire as an opening for Santorum:

With an attentive media contingent in tow, the former Pennsylvania senator hits the ground running with a two-hour town-hall meeting Wednesday night that will be followed by at least 10 more before Tuesday’s primary. He has spent considerable time here—and has an enthusiastic corps of supporters and volunteers in place.

“I’ve spent more time in New Hampshire and done more events than anybody but Jon Huntsman. And the same thing with South Carolina,” he said. “We feel very, very good that we’ve got the organization. And money is coming in better than it’s ever come in. And [after Iowa] we suspect we’ll have the resources to be able not just to compete in New Hampshire, but to compete all the way through.” …

“We know we can build on this momentum,” says Bill Cahill, a co-chair of Santorum’s New Hampshire campaign. “We’re going to make it happen with what we’ve got. We’re not going to staff up. Look, if he can come in at third place, it would be a phenomenon and spectacular. And we think we can make it happen.”

Cahill dismissed the notion that New Hampshire voters may find Santorum too socially conservative with his oppositions to abortion and same-sex marriage. “Conservatives play well in New Hampshire, and his positions on trade, tax policy, and national security are appealing. There’s a very large Catholic and ethnic populations here … The old Reagan coalition is still around for us.”

Conservative columnist Michael Graham says don’t count on it:

“We think South Carolina is extremely important, and we’re the only ones who’ve won a straw poll there,” Brabender said yesterday. “But we think that to be a legitimate presidential candidate, you have to, at the very least, be willing to compete in each region of the country. And that includes the Northeast.”

Team Santorum has diagnosed the problem right. Iowa has a history of backing conservative one-hit wonders like Huckabee, Pat Robertson (’88) and Pat Buchanan (’96) before sending them off to electoral irrelevance.

But diagnosing the problem doesn’t guarantee the campaign can find a cure. And Santorum is never — I repeat never — going to be competitive in New Hampshire. There’s a reason moderate-to-liberal Republicans like Jon Huntsman and Buddy Roemer congregate in Concord while social conservatives like Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry charge on to Columbia, S.C.

The influx of independents and social moderates into the New Hampshire primary dilutes the strength of the conservative GOP base. Having Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul and Perry slicing it up hurts Santorum, too. Meanwhile Mitt Romney’s looking ever more likely to win big there and wipe out his “moderate” competition.

We’ll soon see.  At least Santorum will get the attention for which he has argued — and which may be a curse as well as a blessing now.

Don’t miss Jim Pethokoukis’ excellent look at the difference between the two candidates on economic approaches, and why both may be valid for Republicans in this cycle.


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