The Washington Post

Listen up on earmarks

Mitt Romney of late has been pounding Rick Santorum on earmarks. Yesterday conservative rock star Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) observed that Santorum had “flip-flopped” on earmarks, although he hastened to add that Santorum is a “fine” person.

DeMint might have been giving Romney (whom he endorsed in 2008) a helping hand. Or he might have been shoving back in response to Santorum’s comments earlier in the week on the Sean Hannity show :

HANNITY: How do you answer the earmark issue?

SANTORUM: Well, look, you know, Jim DeMint earmarked when Jim DeMint was in the United States Senate. And, you know, the Congress has a role to play in allocating resources and it was abused. And when that abuse came about, Jim DeMint changed his position and you know, eventually I changed my position, too.

But, you know, earmarks aren’t the issue. Earmarks, you know, it’s less than one percent of the budget. You talk to someone who’s actually going out there and done the tough stuff, going out there and talked about reforming entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare, which I did, that’s the big money, that’s the big problem, that is that hundreds of billions of dollars in unfunded liabilities that has — you have to take political heat to go out and take on Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid and reform the welfare system. There is nobody in the 12 years I was in the Senate who did more to reform and help reform those systems —

HANNITY: All right. Let me ask you did.

SANTORUM: — than I did and I’ll match up my spending record with anybody.

There are a few points to be made here. I understand we all want consistency, but don’t we want candidates to flip-flop in our direction? If they are going to change views, lock themselves into a new stance and promise to hold fast, then we should applaud when they’ve seen the light. We certainly don’t want to discourage candidates from dropping positions with which we disagree.

Second, times change. Earmarks were commonplace until they were abused, and there was an effort by lawmakers to show fiscal sobriety. (Likewise, in 2008 Romney was the more conservative candidate of the available picks, so it is not surprising that conservatives like Santorum and DeMint backed him then.) So it’s not entirely fair to ding Santorum for failing to seize on anti-earmark fervor when no one else saw it as an issue.

And finally, although Santorum changed his mind and earmarks took on a symbolic values (Can’t these guys even give up those?) they ARE a two-bit issue. Taking a no-earmarks vow is sort of like ordering a Diet Coke with your hot fudge sundae. Santorum is right: The “big” money isn’t in bridges to nowhere — it’s in entitlements.

Now it’s a two-edged sword for Santorum to point out that the individual mandate didn’t make Romney a “Massachusetts liberal” in the eyes of the right in 2008 and that it’s good to rethink flawed positions. That said, Santorum has a solid point: If earmarks are his worst sin, isn’t he a solid fiscal conservative?

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.


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