In a generally positive piece on Rick Santorum, the Wall Street Journal editorial board finds:

He proposes a return to the Reagan-era top rate of 28%, and a second rate of 10% for middle-income Americans. He also wants a 12% capital-gains tax, down from 15% today, and half the 23.8% rate that Mr. Obama has promised in 2013. . . .

Most disappointing is the Pennsylvanian’s proposal to triple the tax credit for children (from $1,000 today), which is a hobby horse of the Christian right. This is social policy masquerading as economics. Unlike a cut in marginal tax rates, a larger tax credit does little for growth because it doesn’t change incentives to save, work or invest. It merely rewards taxpayers who have children over those who don’t.

Mr. Santorum is essentially agreeing with liberals who think the tax code should be used to pursue social and political goals. Yet a major goal of tax reform is to make the tax code less of a political free-for-all. The best tax code is one that raises the revenue the government needs with the least amount of economic harm and misallocation of resources.

This is actually an illustration of the strength of Santorum’s candidacy. Of course, we pursue some social ends in the tax code. Do the Journal editors think we’re going to get rid of all deductions? Santorum’s combines both pro-growth and pro-family objectives. Most Americans would applaud that.

The Journal is on firmer ground criticizing Santorum’s differential in the tax rate for manufacturing firms (zero for them and 17.5 percent for the other corporations). This really is about picking winners and losers, and it raises all sorts of definitional and enforcement plans.

But the bottom line is this: Santorum has a perfectly responsible tax reform plan and a solid spending restraint plan. The Journal credits him with plans for “reducing federal nondefense discretionary spending to 2008 levels through across the board agency cuts, eliminating agriculture and energy subsidies, as well as funding for Planned Parenthood, ObamaCare implementation, and United Nations activities ‘that undermine America’s interests’ ” and for block granting of Medicaid. Bizarrely, it ignores his boldest and most important proposal: his embrace of Rep. Paul Ryan’s Medicare reform plan.

A few observations are in order. First, Santorum himself needs to explain again and again his economic proposals. He engaged in non-stop retail politics in Iowa but very, very few voters know how strong his economic plan is. I am told by a consultant for another presidential candidate that in focus groups voters are hard-pressed to come up with any specifics about him.

Second, the Journal largely defangs the cranks who claim Santorum is a “big government” conservative. The transgressions on a national right-to-work law (which he has since reversed) and on trade tariffs are regrettable, but neither rises to the level of a disqualifier by any means. The Journal is right to take earmarks out of the presidential-level selection criteria. (“Mr. Romney and others have been hitting him for supporting earmarks, but until the last couple of years you could count on one hand the number of Senators who didn’t.”)

Third, Santorum’s agenda and his obvious command of the issues haven’t changed since the beginning of the campaign. The Journal never gave him the time of day until he essentially tied for first in Iowa. Conservatives are right to bemoan the bias of left-wing media, but there is no better example of the shortcomings of the conservative press than the group-think that wrote him off and and led them to chase after obviously unfit candidates.

Be prepared to see the next iteration of this if Santorum (as is quite likely) finishes in third or fourth in New Hampshire. The race is over! It’s inevitable! He’s lost the momentum! Coming from the media lemmings who never recognized his potential, this conventional wisdom should be disregarded. The race has hardly begun.

Santorum is both unknown and underestimated. The fact remains that unlike the other not-Romney challengers, the more people learn about him, the more they like him. In South Carolina and beyond, I suspect he’ll continue to build strength. After all, if he can impress the fiscal mavens at the Wall Street Journal, he should be able to make headway with ordinary voters whose considerations are not solely about wealth-generation.