The Goldilocks Conservative
Rick Santorum has come under fire from right-wing critics for being not conservative enough on fiscal and economic issues, while simultaneously being too conservative on social issues. In my mind, he’s just right.
On the matter of fiscal policy Santorum has been portrayed as some kind of big government statist. As a Senator he did cast votes for raising the debt ceiling, for Medicare Part 2, No Child Left Behind, and other big spending programs. He’s admitted erring on a couple of these votes. Overall, though, Santorum’s record as judged by free market policy institutes is fairly solid. The Weekly Standard ran a piece on the National Taxpayer Union’s grading of Santorum, and he compares very favorably to most of his colleagues.
For each session of Congress, NTU scores each member on an A-to-F scale. NTU weights members’ votes based on those votes’ perceived effect on both the immediate and future size of the federal budget. Those who get A’s are among “the strongest supporters of responsible tax and spending policies”; they receive NTU’s “Taxpayers’ Friend Award.” B’s are “good” scores, C’s are “minimally acceptable” scores, D’s are “poor” scores, and F’s earn their recipients membership in the “Big Spender” category. There is no grade inflation whatsoever, as we shall see.
NTU’s scoring paints a radically different picture of Santorum’s 12-year tenure in the Senate (1995 through 2006) than one would glean from the rhetoric of the Romney campaign. Fifty senators served throughout Santorum’s two terms: 25 Republicans, 24 Democrats, and 1 Republican/Independent. On a 4-point scale (awarding 4 for an A, 3.3 for a B+, 3 for a B, 2.7 for a B-, etc.), those 50 senators’ collective grade point average (GPA) across the 12 years was 1.69 — which amounts to a C-. Meanwhile, Santorum’s GPA was 3.66 — or an A-. Santorum’s GPA placed him in the top 10 percent of senators, as he ranked 5th out of 50.
Across the 12 years in question, only 6 of the 50 senators got A’s in more than half the years. Santorum was one of them. He was also one of only 7 senators who never got less than a B. (Jim Talent served only during Santorum’s final four years, but he always got less than a B, earning a B- every year and a GPA of 2.7.) Moreover, while much of the Republican party lost its fiscal footing after George W. Bush took office — although it would be erroneous to say that the Republicans were nearly as profligate as the Democrats — Santorum was the only senator who got A’s in every year of Bush’s first term. None of the other 49 senators could match Santorum’s 4.0 GPA over that span.
The Club for Growth has released white papers on all the candidates. They judged Santorum a little more strictly and found him wanting in areas such as spending and free trade. Still, they still gave him a generally favorable review.
On the whole, Rick Santorum’s record on economic issues in the U.S. Senate was above average. More precisely, it was quite strong in some areas and quite weak in others. He has a strong record on taxes, and his leadership on welfare reform and Social Security was exemplary. But his record also contains several very weak spots, including his active support of wasteful spending earmarks, his penchant for trade protectionism, and his willingness to support large government expansions like the Medicare prescription drug bill and the 2005 Highway Bill.
As president, Santorum would most likely lead the country in a pro-growth direction, but his record contains more than a few weak spots that make us question if he would resist political expediency when it comes to economic issues.
A rougher assessment than the NTU, but generally no worse than either Gingrich or Romney. In fact this is what the Club for Growth writes about Romney:
Because of his long tenure in public life, especially his presidential run in 2008, Mitt Romney is considered a well-vetted candidate by now. Perhaps to his consternation, he has developed an unshakeable reputation as a flip-flopper. He has changed his position on several economic issues, including taxes, education, political free speech, and climate change. And yet the one issue that he doesn’t flip on – RomneyCare – is the one that is causing him the most problems with conservative voters. Nevertheless, he labels himself as a pro-growth fiscal conservative, and we have no doubt that Romney would move the country in a pro-growth direction. He would promote the unwinding of Obama’s bad economic policies, but we also think that Romney is somewhat of a technocrat. After a career in business, quickly finding a “solution” seems to be his goal, even if it means more government intrusion as a means to an end. To this day, Romney supports big government solutions to health care and opposes pro-growth tax code reform – positions that are simply opposite to those supported by true economic conservatives. How much Romney’s philosophy of governance will affect his policy goals if elected, we leave for the voters to decide.
I’d hardly call that a rousing endorsement.
In the end, Ed Morrissey’s sentiments largely mirror mine:
He’s not a perfect conservative, to be sure, and questions about how he would stack up against Barack Obama in the general election are legitimate concerns. However, the alternatives are the person who signed an individual health-care mandate into law in Massachusetts, and the man who both backed individual mandates until 2010 and sat on a couch with Nancy Pelosi to push global-warming alarmism a few years before that, and both of whom also spent three or four weeks sounding more like an Occupier on Bain Capital and Freddie Mac work than a Republican. Those issues occurred more recently than any sins committed by Santorum while in the Senate, which is why I’m not buying the idea thatSantorum is the big-government candidate about which I should be worried.
Now about those social issues. Santorum is under fire for his supposedly out of the mainstream social conservatism. The problem with this line of attack is that he is, by and large, in accord with the majority of Americans on most social issues. The tide has been turning on abortion for years, gay marriage is still unpopular with a majority of the electorate (including majority opposition to the Prop 8 ruling in California), and the majority of the country is opposed to the HHS mandate. Where Santorum evidently loses favor is his personal opposition to contraception, including his willingness to actually talk about the negative consequences of contraception. To hear some of the libertarians on this issue you would think that Santorum has promised to deliver a series of fireside chats about the evils of contraception. All he’s indicated is that he is willing to talk about it, but nothing more. In fact he has insisted that he will not legislate on the matter.
The hypocrisy in this case, I think, is pretty obvious and we’re going to stand up and articulate what the truth is, which is, in this case, as in many cases, my personal feelings and personal moral judgments are not those that are going to be reflected in public law, nor should they all the time. Not everything that is immoral in this country should be illegal or should be within the governance of the federal or state government, or any government.
Yet Santorum’s refusal to completely abandon the contraceptive issue is enough to make libertarian and libertarian-leaning conservatives’ hearts go aflutter. Evidently the fact that a president might mention that he thinks that the contraceptive mentality is harming society is just as oppressive as a government that actually mandates that all institutions cover contraception, or which is literally examining the content of our children’s lunchboxes.
Others are sympathetic to Santorum’s social conservatism, but fear it makes him unelectable. Funny, it didn’t seem to hurt Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, both of whom were elected twice (yes, including W.). Libertarians have tried to co-opt Reagan as one of their own. Sure, he might have said friendlier things about libertarians, but he was not one of them. In fact there is very little light between Reagan and Santorum philosophically. Keep in mind that Reagan wrote an anti-abortion tract while in office. No social libertine was he.
Ultimately what libertarians forget is that they are a distinct electoral minority in this country. If we break Americans out into four broad ideological categories (conceding that this is an over-simplification), we have conservatives, liberals, libertarians, and, for lack of a better term, populists. Populists are the flip side of libertarians, meaning they are socially conservative but economically more liberal. This group is far more prevalent in the United States than libertarians. Now libertarians might point to the advent of the tea party movement as proof that they are electorally ascendant, but that’s not quite right as the overwhelming majority of tea partiers are also socially conservative. The tea party movement emphasizes economic issues, but those that make up the movement are not antithetical to social conservatism. So while it is certainly true that an alliance of conservatives and libertarians is largely mutually beneficial, make no mistake about it: they need us a lot more than we need them to have an electoral impact.
Finally, let’s just look at the other two primary candidates. Gingrich is so unpopular that Sarah Palin looks like the most popular politician in America by comparison. Mitt Romney is perceived as a stiff, boring, out of touch plutocrat. Santorum, on the other hand, can appeal and has appealed to the blue collar voters that make up large swathes of the population in swing states like Michigan, Ohio, and yes, Pennsylvania. Of course the Democratic spin machine will demagogue Santorum to death, but they are going to do that to whoever the GOP nominee is. With somebody like Romney, they’ll just have to be less dishonest about it than with Santorum.