Last month, Ed Morrissey submitted the astute observation that the Republican Party is nearing a crossroads.
The starkest contrasts on the 2016 debate stage are unlikely to be those highlighted by the dispute over the prudence of a policy of isolationism or interventionism abroad. Nor will it be exposed by the fight between Republicans who back proposals aimed at strengthening border security before engaging in immigration reform against those who would pursue a combined strategy. The most defined distinctions, he contends, will be drawn by the Republicans of the Bush era and those who rose to prominence under Obama.
“It’s not that [Jeb] Bush wasn’t a good governor, or that Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum weren’t good officeholders either. They were,” Morrissey wrote, “and that’s the point.”
“We have a bench that didn’t exist in 2012 that could make the GOP the party looking to the future rather than the past in 2016,” he concluded. “That will be a tremendous advantage — if only the GOP realizes it.”
The GOP, or at least the party’s grassroots, does realize this is an advantage. It is the political class that has been slow to catch on.
The latest example of the failure by Republican officeholders of the last decade to discern the changing mood of the party they seek to lead is evident in the nascent feud brewing between two of the Republican Party’s staunchest big government proponents: Santorum and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
In an interview with The New York Times, Santorum revealed his likely intention to announce a new presidential bid in the spring or early summer. He had some harsh words for some of his prospective challengers, including Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Ted Cruz (R-TX), but Santorum reserved his sharpest critiques for the potential candidate with whom he will fight to secure the support of the Republican Party’s Christian conservatives.
“He has to talk about Common Core. I love talking about Common Core,” Mr. Santorum said of the education standards that have become deeply unpopular among conservatives. “He has to talk about immigration and the Dream Act. I love talking about immigration and the Dream Act. He has to talk about taxes; I haven’t voted for a tax increase. I have a 100 percent record on taxes, signed every pledge every year.”
Mr. Santorum then turned to an aide and asked: “What’s the other one?”
Reminded that Mr. Huckabee had once backed a cap-and-trade program to reduce carbon emissions, Mr. Santorum exclaimed: “Climate change. This guy was for climate change.”
“Governor Huckabee’s actual views — not the distortions of them — are fortunately well documented in his own voice through 12 published books, six and a half years of television and radio commentary, and daily postings on his blog and Facebook,” read a statement provided to The Times in response to Santorum’s criticisms from Huckabee spokeswoman Alice Stewart. There is no shortage of incestuous symbolism in the fact that Stewart previously served as the press secretary for Santorum’s 2012 campaign.
The brazenness of one of the GOP’s most hardline supporters of interventionist government attacking one of his own is breathtaking.
Santorum, an outspoken social conservative, has long supported federal intervention to prevent states from legalizing same-sex marriages. “I’m for great latitude for the states to do a lot, but not anything,” he said in 2011. “And this idea that the 10th Amendment means there is no boundary to what the states can do is a misunderstanding of the 10th Amendment and I will stand on that ground.”
As a member of Congress, Santorum backed No Child Left Behind and George W. Bush’s Medicaid expansion. “He never met an earmark that he didn’t like,” wrote Michael Tanner in National Review in 2012. “In fact, it wasn’t just earmarks for his own state that he favored, which might be forgiven as pure electoral pragmatism, but earmarks for everyone, including the notorious ‘Bridge to Nowhere.’ The quintessential Washington insider, he worked closely with Tom DeLay to set up the ‘K Street Project,’ linking lobbyists with the GOP leadership.”
Even Santorum’s proposals lauded by coastal elites in the media for their potential to appeal to voters that typically did not vote Republican, like blue-collar workers and union households, smacked of interventionist government. In 2012, Santorum opposed tax cuts for high-income Americans and backed corporate tax reforms that would favor industrial and manufacturing jobs; in essence, the redistribution of incomes and the government picking economic winners and losers.
Santorum has been remarkably consistent in his deference toward intrusive government programs designed to address social ills.
In 2008, Santorum mocked the notion that Republicanism should be synonymous with unfettered individualism. “This whole idea of personal autonomy, well I don’t think most conservatives hold that point of view,” the former Pennsylvania senator lamented. “They have this idea that people should be left alone, be able to do whatever they want to do, government should keep our taxes down and keep our regulations low, keep our regulations low, that we shouldn’t get involved in the bedroom, we shouldn’t get involved in cultural issues.”
“That is not how traditional conservatives view the world,” he added. “There is no such society that I’m aware of, where we’ve had radical individualism and that it succeeds as a culture.”
“I believe that the federal government should set up a system where we create the right incentives for you to make efficient choices,” Santorum said in a 1993 interview when asked about the role government should play in American lives.
“I take a much more proactive position in government in solving problems than most Republicans, because I believe government has a role. A lot of folks believe, ‘Well, just keep government out of it.’ I don’t believe that.” He added, “I think government has a role in making sure that there is equal opportunity.”
He added that it was government’s responsibility to “make [America’s health care system] work better” at a time when the nation was furiously debating the merits of Hillary Clinton’s health care reform proposals. “We can’t continue to ignore it and say, ‘Oh well, you know, it will work itself out in the marketplace,’” he added. “That’s wrong.”
We could go on and on. Mike Huckabee is a big government conservative, but so is Santorum. They may adopt libertarian language in order to appeal to a conservative base that has grown more favorable to a laissez-faire approach toward both fiscal and social issues, but it is unclear if their policy preferences have evolved along with those of the party’s activist grassroots.
From Jeb Bush to Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee to Mitt Romney, the field of prospective 2016 candidates is shockingly unreflective of the vibrant and reinvigorated base of Republican voters. The Obama era has revitalized the GOP in a manner that only a few years in the wilderness can provide. It would be a rejection of those years of internal deliberation and reform for the party to nominate a retread burdened with the baggage of support for a decade of big government Republicanism.
The Republican Party has undergone fundamental changes over the last six years, and it deserves leaders who reflect those adjustments. To endorse the statist vision espoused by the party’s “compassionate” members would be a rejection of the new course upon which the GOP embarked in 2009. If 2016 is to be a referendum on the direction of the country over the last decade, the GOP would only legitimize Barack Obama’s presidency if they nominated a figure representative of the brand of Republicanism that led to his ascension.