A number of journalists have now figured out that presidential candidate Rick Santorum has something to say. Jonathan Last reports:

It’s an interesting bridge, from economic to moral issues, that Santorum constructs. It’s at once populist and values-based. Even when he’s talking about the tax code or economic policy, he finds a way to talk about family life. In Brentwood, New Hampshire, for instance, a voter asked him how he would stop members of Congress from insider trading. Santorum responded that we shouldn’t need a law to prevent legislators from profiting off of nonpublic information, because such behavior is obviously unethical. But because our representatives don’t act ethically and morally, he said, we will have to pass a law constraining them. Then we’ll have to hire people to enforce the law. As a result congressional offices will swell with these new hall monitors. The government will grow. And the entire operation will cost Americans money.

Then Santorum bridged: “People say, ‘All we need to care about is cutting taxes and cutting government and everything will be fine.’ But if people don’t live good, decent, moral lives, government is going to get bigger. And that’s why I say families and faith are important parts of the foundation of economic limited government.”

It was an elegant formulation; and the audience loved it.

The Post likewise reports:

In an era of carefully scripted and scheduled campaign stops, Santorum’s town halls are marathons — 90 minutes or more of long, discursive history lessons. Interested in Ronald Reagan’s reform of Social Security in 1983? Santorum will tell you about it. He has plenty of thoughts about the significance to Islam of the town where Iran is thought to be building a nuclear facility, too. And, of course, he talks about presidential term limits in Honduras.

Even as his crowds have grown since his near-win against former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in the Iowa Republican caucuses, he tries to call on every raised hand in a packed room.

After the departure of the know-nothing Herman Cain, the collapse of the political bomb-thrower Newt Gingrich (arrest the judges!) and the decline of Texas Gov. Rick Perry (who managed to be inarticulate, simplistic and uninteresting in offering a series of gimmicky proposals), the Republican electorate has decided that it wants to listen to candidates who are knowledgable.

These are accomplished individuals who have not been doctrinaire (to the horror of the right-wing blogosphere) in their approach to governance. For one thing they want to govern and think that government policies, properly constructed, can promote desirable ends. For Romney those tend to be economic goals (e.g., capital formation, price-conscious health insurance shopping). For Santorum these are often social aims (e.g., promote family cohesion, restore a manufacturing base to rebuild the middle class). But they don’t object to the concept of governance (as Rep. Ron Paul’s radical libertarianism does) or show disdain for it (as Perry so often does).

At times the front-runners’ deviations from conservative orthodoxy prove too much for the Republican base. Romneycare in the Massachusetts governor’s mind was a solution to the free-rider problem and an attempt to create a health-care market; For many conservatives it was an unacceptable infringement on personal liberty. In Santorum’s case, he is practically unique among Republicans in resistance to free trade. (In New Hampshire yesterday, he argued, “I believe in fair trade . . . I didn’t think NAFTA was a particularly good deal for America.”) In his mind, he’s struggling to protect those manufacturing towns where the middle class has been decimated; For many conservatives this is Luddite and anti-market thinking.

That political heterodoxy is repugnant to the loudest voices in the conservative blogosphere, but it makes for interesting public policy discussions. And it reminds us that government is not all or nothing, free market or socialism.

Ironically it is the pundits observing them who are often simplistic and conducive to eye-rolling. Despite Santorum’s expressed views on birth control (he’s opposed to it as a Catholic but wouldn’t outlaw it and recognizes it would take a constitutional amendment to do so), liberal columnists like my colleague Eugene Robinson insist on painting him as a bug-eyed radical out to snatch up birth control bills. No matter how some pundits pine for nuance and moderation, they can’t resist the urge to stuff candidates who exhibit those qualities into neat little boxes, it seems.

In an obvious dig at Gingrich, Santorum is fond of reminding crowds that it is not enough to love ideas. You need to know the good ones from the bad. And it is also true that you have to balance conflicting goals and operate in a political landscape that did not emerge overnight but has been shaped by decades of legislation and behavioral patterns. That is, in part, why ideas like “9-9-9” or “send Social Security to the states” reveal their authors to be unfit for the presidency; their cartoonish ideas reveal a lack of respect for voters and a failure to understand what is possible in our lifetimes.

In this election, the Republicans’ leading candidates and the voters who put them at the top of the pack turn out to be the smart ones. They want more than sound bites. They understand that the country is in trouble. They crave for adult leadership and competence and are willing to tolerate some ideological diversity. It’s the media that seem intent on dumbing down the process.