Rick Santorum is resonating with voters because he is committed and unabashed on his moral ideas, and because he affirms that moral ideas matter – that they are indispensable to government performing its proper role in society.

Conservative voters who are alarmed about the direction of government recognize that procedural mechanisms and ephemeral election-year sentiment can’t fix it.  They perceive that our problems with government can only be addressed with moral decisions: difficult decisions made when much is at stake and there are deeply compelling interests in competition with each other.  Moral courage exists for such scary things, and doing the right thing when all of the choices at hand will break someone’s china requires a kind of moral courage that rarely sounds soothing to the ears of a harassed public.  It is more likely to resonate as trenchant, annoying, or painfully necessary.

Many of the voters are down for that this year.  A growing number of them are less put off by the sting of astringent than they are afraid of what will happen if America tries to avoid it.  They aren’t irritated by “moral talk”; they are interested and primed for it.

As regards Santorum’s suitability to this mood, however, a question in my mind is whether moral courage for the hour has to sound particularly theological, oddly detailed, or hectoring.  Along these lines, William McGurn offered Santorum good advice in a column on Tuesday:

[W]hen Mr. Santorum discusses [social] issues, he needs to fold them into his larger narrative about the free society. …

There is, however, one area where Mr. Santorum needs to demonstrate a discipline it’s not yet clear he has. That is the ability to resist the efforts to drag him out of the public questions into the weeds of theological debate.

I would go a bit further and suggest Santorum take a page directly from Ronald Reagan’s book.  This would entail a pivot in emphasis.  John Podhoretz has nicely identifiedwhat we might call Santorum’s “presentation” problem: his tendency, at least in his non-campaign speeches from the past, to dwell on rebuking a fallen America.

The point is central, because rebuke of the past is not a guide to policy for the future – and the “rebuke” theme gets old quickly, as demonstrated by a similar tendency in the current president.  Something like Santorum’s now-infamous “mainline Protestants” comment may get vigorous agreement from a lot of evangelical Protestants, but it isn’t the basis for an action plan or a useful source of vision for national government.  Granted, Santorum made that remark in what was essentially a religious speech at a Catholic college.  But when you’re running for president, your memorable comments need to have a more positive and visionary emphasis.

Fortunately, there’s a lot to be positive about in the American tradition Santorum invokes.  It is also an excellent source of vision.  And one of Reagan’s greatest strengths was in defining and celebrating the important elements of that political tradition: the trademark American idea of government that is limited, constitutional, and federal.

Reagan saved his rebukes for left-wing ideology and policy.  He didn’t approach the American people as a sick society in need of exhortation, even though America was putting up plenty of soft targets in that regard in the 1970s.  Rather, he predicated his political approach on expecting the best of the people.  He spoke often about liberty and small government in terms of their unique power to unleash the people’s virtues.  He couched his message in positive terms, speaking far less about the evils of welfarism, for example, than about the benefits of liberty and opportunity.

With his positive approach, Reagan was unusually convincing on an essential principle: that the people do better with less government.  Santorum may embrace that principle, but it’s not readily associated with him, because he spends so much time talking about things like the societal problems that arise when contraception is considered a cheap “out” from moral decisions about sex and procreation.  He may have good points on that and other topics, but as a practical matter of communication and point-making, those essays in forensic pessimism don’t really advance the argument for political liberty.

Republicans this year should emphasize encouraging the people with reminders of what America was constituted to do right, and what Americans have done right with their freedom.  In 2012, it may be necessary to speak in some explicit detail about the moral principles behind American liberty.  Today’s voters are less likely to have been reared on them than the voters of 1980 were.  But if there’s one thing this primary season has shown, it’s that the voters want that discussion.

That is a tremendous opportunity.  Santorum can seize it best by concentrating on what we’ve got going for us and why we can turn this thing around.  If our focus is on social negatives, and if we are discouraged as to whether we will do good things with liberty and small government, it’s hard to make the case that those conditions frame a better future for the country.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at The Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, The Weekly Standard online, and her own blog, The Optimistic Conservative.

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