The Santorum “big government conservative” debate continues

posted at 11:00 am on January 7, 2012 by Jazz Shaw

I seem to remember a time when “big government” and “conservatism” were pretty much mutually exclusive phrases. But the lines have been blurring on that for a long time now, a point which came to light significantly during the administration of George W. Bush with the expansion of Medicare and NCLB. This distracted and disillusioned many conservatives, along with the accelerated rate of spending. (It was nowhere near the current pace, obviously, but still enough to put many fiscal conservatives off their feed.)

At the Daily Caller, Matt Lewis highlights this debate and how it has swung the spotlight onto Rick Santorum. An unlikely pair of debaters are squaring off on the subject, too. In this case it’s Rush Limbaugh and Erick Erickson. First up… Limbaugh.

Now there’s a mantra — there’s mantra out there — and it’s even now spread to CBS News: “Will Santorum’s big government conservatism resonate?” It’s everywhere, folks. “Santorum’s big government conservatism.” Have you ever heard “big government conservatism” associated with Rick Santorum before today? Have you? Have you?

Lewis responds that yes, in fact, he has heard it before. And it’s not in terms of wanting the government to take a hand in matters such as pro-life issues or immigration. It’s about spending and entitlement programs, as I noted above. The response from Erickson:

I’m rather tired of all the people who don’t like Romney trying to claim Rick Santorum is not a big government conservative, or not a pro-life statist. I would support him before I would support Romney too, but I have no intention of giving up ideological and intellectual consistency in the name of beating Mitt Romney.

Rick Santorum is a pro-life statist. He is. You will have to deal with it. He is a big government conservative. Santorum is right on social issues, but has never let his love of social issues stand in the way of the creeping expansion of the welfare state. In fact, he has been complicit in the expansion of the welfare state.

I think the main point of contention here is precisely how we are to define “big government.” (Which, for some reason, always summons up visions of Bill Clinton giving a speech for me.) We can debate the dollars and cents at the bottom of the column, but that’s a somewhat different argument than asking what the proper role of the federal government is. Immigration and national security are obviously the province of Washington. (Current appearances to the contrary not withstanding.) But the expansion of entitlement programs is going to be a hard sell with conservatives as not being a big government position.

Of course, all of this amounts to the type of sniping and attacks you’d expect to see during the primary season. It’s also not something that’s likely to hurt Santorum much if he manages to win the nomination, as those aren’t positions that are going to scare off moderates and independents.


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