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Right Turn
Posted at 09:00 AM ET, 02/19/2012

Is the not-Romney an improvement for conservatives?

I had lunch with a conservative scholar and writer on Friday. Remarking on the rise of Rick Santorum, he exclaimed sarcastically, “Oh, swell, the Republicans have found a guy who’s a big spender AND an extremist on social issues!”

On one level it was a funny remark, symptomatic of the notion among many conservative curmudgeons that if there is a way to screw up an election the GOP will find it. On the other, it was an interesting statement that suggests that the Republicans, after winning a House majority in 2010 by stressing limited government and focusing much less on social issues, may undo their success by choosing a candidate with positions unpopular with a substantial majority of Americans — big government and excessive meddling in personal lives (having nothing to do with abortion, on which the GOP is virtually united and public opinion in general is at least evenly divided.)

The two issues that I raised this past week — Santorum’s unconservative economic thinking and his extremism on social issues — have not gone unnoticed by others.

The Daily reports on the same angst that Right Turn found among fiscal conservatives over Santorum’s plan to zero out the tax rate only for manufacturing firms:

“Giving a preferential rate is picking winners and losers through the tax code,” said Curtis Dubay, a tax policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. “The goal of tax reform should be a neutral tax code.”
“This is not free-market economics, this is trying to tilt the market toward manufacturing, and it will hurt the economy rather than help it, because resources would be artificially diverted from other sectors of the economy to manufacturing,” Dubay said.
Kevin Hassett, director of economic policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said Santorum’s plan would “create the biggest tax dodge in history,” as businesses raced to redefine themselves as manufacturers.

Not only does this violate conservative principles, but it detracts from the sort of “bold contrasts” that Santorum says are essential to winning the election. (Conservatives “worry that when Santorum talks about the issue, he sounds a bit too much like President Obama, who has made revitalizing manufacturing a key plank of his economic platform.”) While chiding Romney for not “sounding like a conservative,” the right wing seems to have fallen under the spell of a candidate whose economic policy, according to Hassett, amounts to “economic illiteracy.”

Now it is true that Romney himself hasn’t made good use of Santorum’s “economic illiteracy.” Byron York reports that if “you paired . . . [Romney’s speech at the Chamber of Commerce in Farmington Hills, Mich.] with the speech that Rick Santorum gave to the Detroit Economic Club at about the same time, you came away with the feeling that Mitt Romney knows a lot more about business than Rick Santorum.” It is obvious to York, but unless Romney articulates that point and explains why Santorum’s manufacturing tax break is nonsensical, voters aren’t going to understand that Santorum isn’t much of an economic conservative and, moreover, is ill-equipped to develop an agenda that will promote private sector growth. It’s not enough just to to say, “I spent my life in the private sector.”

As for social extremism, the Associated Press observes:

Even among a Republican presidential field eager to please religious conservatives, Santorum’s ideas stand out.
A Catholic father of seven whose kids are home-schooled, Santorum may seem to wear his conservatism as comfortably as his sweater vests. But he’s walked a careful path, keeping the more provocative opinions that helped sink his re-election to the Senate in 2006 mostly out of his presidential campaign.
That is, until he leaped to the top of the polls, alongside Mitt Romney.
Now Santorum’s record on social issues is getting a closer look. On several matters, he’s outside the Republican mainstream. And if he becomes the GOP nominee, some of his ideas would probably be surprising, even puzzling, to general election voters.

These outside-the-mainstream views apply to areas such as working women, women in combat, contraception and gays in the military. On this last point, the AP notes, “A CBS News poll gave a 48-41 edge to supporters of gays serving openly in the military. Republicans who felt strongly about the issue were twice as likely to support gays in the military than to oppose them, however.” Moreover, Santorum insists on reinstating the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which even those who opposed dropping it may find ludicrously impractical.

All of this is doubly confusing, given that many anti-Romney voices think he’s not really a small-government conservative. You would think they’d go to someone who is more, not less, schooled in fiscal conservatism.

The lack of awareness among most conservative outlets (some ignored the entire contraception controversy — did they think people wouldn’t notice?) that Santorum’s positions go beyond mainstream conservative views is one of many consequences of a right-wing blogospheric echo chamber that is more socially conservative, male and antagonistic toward Romney than the rest of the party.

But the blogosphere and talk radio are not the Republican Party, although they loudly and robustly give voice to one segment of it. The question remains whether a majority of Republican primary voters will figure out that the current not-Romney candidate is also the not-fiscally-conservative conservative and the not-appealing-to-moderates candidate.

UPDATE (9:30 a.m.): As if that were not all enough, additional comments by Santorum set off a firestorm last night. Ben Smith reports:

Rick Santorum’s recent comment that Barack Obama ascribes to “some phony theology. Not a theology based on the Bible” raised eyebrows this weekend, but its real impact may be in reviving a far more aggressive statement Santorum made four years ago.
Here’s the quote, dredged up from a 2008 speech at a Catholic college:
“We all know that this country was founded on a Judeo-Christian ethic but the Judeo-Christian ethic was a Protestant Judeo-Christian ethic, sure the Catholics had some influence, but this was a Protestant country and the Protestant ethic, mainstream, mainline Protestantism, and of course we look at the shape of mainline Protestantism in this country and it is in shambles, it is gone from the world of Christianity as I see it.”
The mainline denominations include the Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches, some of whose leaders stand well to the political left; but whose credentials as Christian aren’t generally considered in doubt.

Moreover, this was in the context of him declaring that Satan was behind the destruction of institutions including these Protestant denominations. (“If you were Satan, who would you attack in this day and age. There is no one else to go after other than the United States and that has been the case now for almost two hundred years, once America’s preeminence was sown by our great Founding Fathers.”)

Conservatives can bury their heads in the sand. They can point to theological and other high-minded critiques of the leftward drift of certain churches. But no president of the United States, seeking to lead a diverse country, can speak in such tones and not offended, indeed horrify, large segments of the electorate. In addition, Santorum is uniquely stubborn in his insistence on talking about not simply run-of the-mill social issues (abortion), but notions that the vast majority of Americans reject.

Average Americans are tolerant people, increasingly inclusive in their views about their fellow citizens with which they disagree, and when they hear this stuff they think “wacko” and “zealot.” It does no good to argue that the speech was in 2008; Santorum certainly isn’t going to apologize or retract his views, and the Obama campaign, the press and a large segment of the electorate will rightly conclude that such a divisive and didactic person is not electable and not fit for the presidency in 21st century America.

By  |  09:00 AM ET, 02/19/2012

Categories:  2012 campaign, Conservative movement

 
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