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Right Turn
Posted at 01:00 PM ET, 01/06/2012

Santorum’s critics may be barking up the wrong tree

On the ground in New Hampshire Rick Santorum is drawing big crowds. In polls he is surging and is certain to pass Newt Gingrich for third place. But in mainstream media and in rivals’ attack ads the first significant criticism is emerging. The Post reports:

In the Senate, for example, he played a pivotal role in advancing the controversial K Street Project, a highly organized effort to pressure industry groups and lobbying firms to hire Republicans for influential jobs and punish those who brought in Democrats. ­Santorum oversaw regular Tuesday meetings with lobbyists in which he solicited their views on pending legislation and discussed potential jobs, according to documents and news reports and a lobbyist who attended the meetings.
After losing a reelection bid in 2006, he capitalized on his congressional experience by beginning a profitable career on K Street as an adviser to industry groups and lobbying firms, disclosure records show.
Santorum’s track record as a longtime Capitol Hill insider is likely to pose a political challenge in the weeks ahead, in part because it undermines his self-portrayal as a reform-minded champion of fiscal conservatism.

But does it? After all, he’s not running as a tear-down-D.C. type like Newt Gingrich, whose biography renders his campaign themes hypocritical. He’s not proposing a bunch of gimmicks like Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s part-time Congress. He’s not claiming the mantle of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex). who thinks the federal government should do practically nothing. To the contrary, he is selling experience and a sort of Burkean conservatism rooted in civil society, personal responsibility and strengthened families.

The National Journal reports: that “Santorum sponsored at least two bills and ‘pushed to amend a mammoth Medicare overhaul to including extra spending,’ all of which would have benefited Universal Health Services, a Pennsylvania-based hospital management company. A short time after leaving the Senate, Santorum joined the company’s board of directors where he was compensated with $395,000 in fees and stock options. He also began consulting for a Pennsylvania gas and coal producer, which benefited from policies for which Santorum advocated during his time in the Senate.” Really, that’s the best they’ve got? He tried to protect his home state and then he went to work for a prominent company in his home state. Stunning. (Not.)

That is not to say his record shouldn’t be scrutinized. And it is certainly the case that the minimalist government voters won’t be entirely comfortable with his record. But it’s not readily apparent that this line of attack will pose a significant problem.

Better than anyone to date, my colleague Michael Gerson explains where Santorum fits into the conservative tradition:

Libertarianism is an extreme form of individualism, in which personal rights trump every other social goal and institution. It is actually a species of classical liberalism, not conservatism — more directly traceable to John Stuart Mill than Edmund Burke or Alexis de Tocqueville. The Catholic (and increasingly Protestant) approach to social ethics asserts that liberty is made possible by strong social institutions — families, communities, congregations — that prepare human beings for the exercise of liberty by teaching self-restraint, compassion and concern for the public good. Oppressive, overreaching government undermines these value-shaping institutions. Responsible government can empower them — say, with a child tax credit or a deduction for charitable giving — as well as defend them against the aggressions of extreme poverty or against “free markets” in drugs or obscenity.
This is not statism; it is called subsidiarity. In this view, needs are best served by institutions closest to individuals. But when those institutions require help or protection, higher-order institutions should intervene. So when state governments imposed Jim Crow laws, the federal government had a duty to overturn them. When a community is caught in endless economic depression and drained of social capital, government should find creative ways to empower individuals and charities — maybe even prison ministries that change lives from the inside out.

That may not be an political tradition that is in favor among conservatives. But it is intellectually intriguing and provides a vivid contrast both to what can seem like sterile economic determinism by the right and to government nannyism on the left. If Santorum were Ron Paul or Newt Gingrich his D.C. connections could be very problematic. But thankfully, he’s offering something different.

If he fails, it will be because the limited government advocates are in ascendancy in the GOP, and the urge to bring government to heel after the Obama years is so great that Santorum’s philosophy seems to provide an insufficient antidote to Obama’s legacy.

But the benefit that Santorum has (aside from his smarts and blue-collar appeal) is that he provides something for everyone. He’s for the balanced budget amendment. He wants lower tax rates. He thinks government regulation is strangling business. But in ripping out what is harmful and imposing new policies, he wants to make sure the most vulnerable aren’t hurt and that the institutions we need the most aren’t harmed. That’s not going to be undermined by the non-news that he was in Congress for a long time.

By  |  01:00 PM ET, 01/06/2012

Categories:  2012 campaign

 
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