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Right Turn
Posted at 08:45 AM ET, 02/21/2012

Santorum revives compassionate conservatism

Jon Ward has a typically smart report arguing that Rick Santorum is running on a compassionate conservatism 2.0. He writes: “Rick Santorum is trying to bring back a version of George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism, with one major difference: very little talk of government programs. . . . His belief, he said, is that people will have to step up of their own free will and help others, sometimes through institutions like churches and charities, and sometimes on their own. The kicker? There’s little the government can do to make this take place.”

There are a number of complications with this approach, quite aside from any suggestion that Santorum is in fact practicing “compassionate conservatism,” a phrase reviled by the right by the suggestion that regular conservatism lacks compassion.

For starters, Santorum is open to the hypocrisy charge. He preaches: “Go to the Lower East Side for the summer. Help out those in need in our society. Take the gift that God has given you and plow it back in, not to the government anymore, but to your neighbors in your community.” But his own support for charities is embarrassingly deficient. If he wants people to personally and financially support private charities, he should have spent more of his six- or seven-figure salary over the last four years setting an example.

In addition, he voted for much of the big government programs (e.g., No Child Left Behind, the grotesque 2005 transportation authorization act) and policies (e.g., defending Big Labor’s sacred cow Davis- Bacon, which requires government contractors to pay prevailing wage rates) that add to the cost of the federal government. So before he gets to the part of the equation on compassionate private action, he should spend some time shoring up his image as someone actually dedicated to cutting government.

More to the point, Santorum has never been much of a defender of free-market capitalism as the tide that lifts all boats. He doesn’t speak, as conservatives have urged Mitt Romney to do, that the best anti-poverty programs are pro-growth policies. As John McCormack wrote in bashing Romney for his “very poor” remark: “The standard conservative argument is that a conservative economic agenda will help everyone. For the poor, that means getting as many as possible back on their feet and working rather than languishing as wards of the welfare state.”Santorum’s increasing lack of attention to free-market pro-growth conservative economics in favor of other themes will not help allay the concerns of libertarians, the business community and fiscal conservatives.

And finally, it’s hard to be seen as compassionate when you use incendiary language and question others’ faith. The key to delivering a message about taking care of your fellow citizens is to be perceived as unifier and a genuine advocate for a-political good works. A harsh hyper-partisan like Santorum simply isn’t an effective messenger. The jarring contrast between angry, accusatory Santorum and “help-your-fellow-man” Santorum leaves one wondering if his compassion is genuine or perhaps strictly curtailed by his staunch religious stances ( no prenatal testing for you, dear!).

To be blunt, this theme is an interesting sideshow to the central issues in the campaign. Already time- and financial-stressed middle-class voters don’t want to be told they have to do even more. (A 2011 report told us: “More than 60 million Americans volunteered 8.1 billion hours of their services in 2010 in work valued at nearly $173 billion.” This no doubt vastly undercounts the billions of helpful daily acts of neighbors, friends and family members.) They want to hear what Santorum is going to do to cut the debt, promote growth and advance our national security. Rather than tell us what he’d like all of us to do once government is cut, he’d be wiser to explain in some detail how he’s going to do what President Obama won’t, namely reform entitlements, cut spending, shrink the federal workforce, send some programs to the states and take on public-employee unions and Big Labor goodies.

By  |  08:45 AM ET, 02/21/2012

Categories:  2012 campaign, Conservative movement

 
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