So it continues, this scrutiny under which Santorum now happily campaigns. (Yes, “happily.” He sounded ecstatic to be able to legitimately target Barack Obama and Mitt Romney as his competition at his first event in New Hampshire yesterday.)

So far, most of the criticisms sound like this: Santorum is of the big government, compassionate breed of conservative — and as much a part of the Republican establishment as Mitt Romney. Santorum’s earmark-laden voting record from his time in the Senate is an easy piece of evidence to prop up this idea.

But, if these excerpts from an appearance at a Press Club luncheon in Harrisburg, Pa., in June of last year are any indication, Santorum is unlikely to be embarrassed by accusations that he once played pork-barrel politics. Instead, he’ll use a line like this: “It’s not earmarks that are the problem; it’s entitlement programs run amok.” He’ll be right.

That doesn’t mean it’ll be savvy of him to stick to that line, though. If he draws it out into a broader and more meaningful discussion of entitlement reform, then it might be a vote-winner. But if he uses it solely to excuse attempts to curry favor with constituents (attempts that, apparently, didn’t even help to ensure his reelection), then it’ll be a poor defense. True, eliminating earmarks alone would never eliminate the debt — but it’s a symbolic gesture that nevertheless does matter.

Still, Santorum says something else in this video that I find thought-provoking and important. He says he has “real concerns” about recent attempts — largely prompted by libertarians and the Tea Party — to completely redefine conservatism in fiscal terms. That redefinition, he suggests, forgets certain societal obligations that are written into us as human beings and that have to be met one way or another. Shades of Catholic thought color Santorum’s speech.

Ann Coulter sees this — and finds it troubling. She writes:

Santorum is not as conservative as his social-issues credentials suggest. He is more of a Catholic than a conservative, which means he’s good on 60 percent of the issues, but bad on others, such as big government social programs. He’d be Ted Kennedy if he didn’t believe in God.

Santorum may not be a big spender as far as professional politicians go, but he is still a professional politician. In 2005, one of his former aides described him as “a Catholic missionary who happens to be in the Senate.”

The Catholic missionary was fantastic on issues like partial-birth abortion, but more like a Catholic bishop in his support for No Child Left Behind, the Medicare drug entitlement program (now costing taxpayers more than $60 billion a year), and a highway bill with a Christmas tree of earmarks, including the famous “bridge to nowhere.”

Santorum cites his father’s admonition to put any extra money in the poor box at church to explain his wanting to use the federal government to help the poor.

But what I hear when Santorum speaks about his concerns about the Tea Party and libertarianism is less a total embrace of non-doctrinally-binding Catholic social justice theory than a desire for continuity within the conservative movement and concerns about the strict reactivity of the Tea Party. That, I find legitimate.

The Tea Party, at its heart, was and is reactionary — an instinctive response to the appalling arrogance and dangerous irresponsibility of the passage of Obamacare and other Obama-era policies. Tea Party opposition to out-of-control spending was a reflex to the extremity of the expenses the government was incurring. The Tea Party wanted cuts, but didn’t initially have a systematic program to cut spending. Why? In the end, a budget reflects a people’s priorities. But the Tea Party’s primary priority has been and will be a balanced budget. Unfortunately, “a balanced budget” doesn’t dictate what should be cut and what should be kept.

Santorum — and indeed conservatism — is not reactionary. His political views proceed from a coherent worldview deeply rooted in Catholicism. Conservatism is itself a coherent worldview deeply rooted in certain ideas about unchanging human nature — and one that is fundamentally compatible with Catholicism.

As often as I’m tempted to want politicians to take a strictly negative approach to government (a la Michele Bachmann, fighting as much against bad laws as for good ones, in the style of Calvin Coolidge), I think Santorum is right to take a slightly more “positive” approach. In some ways, after all, reactivity is imprisoning. That’s because, as theologian Luigi Guissani writes, “Reactivity as the criterion for a relationship with reality burns the bridges linking us to the richness of history and tradition, that is to say, it cuts us off from the past. Reactivity signifies the absence of an all-encompassing, recognized, pursued and desired meaning.”

Tea Partiers rightly look to the Founding for political cues and, in that sense, is far less reactionary — and, hence, trapped in the present — than Progressivism. The Founders defined the “all-encompassing, recognized” meaning of America — and Tea Partiers embrace that meaning.  But it’s equally crucial not to ignore all that has happened between the Founding and now — not to ignore all the ways the meaning of America has been “pursued and desired,” sometimes to the detriment of that meaning, sometimes to its advancement.

We need reclamation, not reaction. Santorum might just be the guy to provide that.