Just as the conservative movement finally has the first real chance since Ronald Reagan to see one of its own — a “full-spectrum conservative,” as Rick Santorum now calls himself, picking up the phrase from Rep. Steve King (R., Iowa) — win the Republican presidential nomination, the purists emerge to say he’s somehow not conservative enough. The attempt to attach a “big-government conservative” label to Rick Santorum for some rare wanderings from the conservative reservation makes about as much sense as arguing that record-breaking Drew Brees of the Saints is a poor quarterback because he threw 14 interceptions this season.
The reality is that Rick Santorum’s instincts and intellectual choices consistently tend toward freedom.
On taxes, for instance, Santorum has always been superb. The Club for Growth’s white paper on Santorum, calling his tax stances “very strong,” confirms that “Santorum has consistently supported broad-based tax cuts and opposed tax increases either by sponsoring key legislation or by casting votes on relevant bills.”
His record on a host of other conservative issues is as solid as that of any politician in the past two decades. He has been firmly and repeatedly against all sorts of regulatory abuse, against McCain-Feingold and other restrictions on political speech, for school choice, for tort reform, for a strong military, and for a balanced-budget amendment.
Obviously he has been as stalwart a defender of social conservatism, for 20 full years, as any other public figure. And as virtually every conservative involved in the judicial wars during Santorum’s time in the Senate has confirmed, in person or in print, Santorum and his staff were the go-to people in the Senate when you needed to find tireless, committed advocates for conservative jurists. Santorum is, wrote Ed Whelan of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, “the candidate in whom I have by far the greatest confidence” in terms of how likely he would be “to appoint excellent Supreme Court justices and lower-court judges and to work tenaciously to get them confirmed.”
Meanwhile, as Santorum frequently (and entirely accurately) reminds anybody who will listen, his work on the single most important conservative policy reform of the past half century, the 1996 welfare-to-work effort that cut spending and poverty rates simultaneously, was seminal, indefatigable, and remarkably effective. Iowa’s Sen. Chuck Grassley explained to the Des Moines Register a week ago that he was unconvinced about welfare reform until Santorum paid him an office call and “took a lot of time to convince me of his point of view. . . . The sincerity and effort that he has to get his point across in the presidential campaign is almost a total reflection of how he operated as a United States senator.” Grassley yielded and voted for reform.
More broadly, until Rep. Paul Ryan’s recent prominence, nobody in Congress has been as passionate and fearless an advocate for entitlement reform as Santorum. Medicaid block grants. Investment accounts for Social Security. Medicare payments controlled by the beneficiaries rather than third-party payers. Choice rather than government mandates. Indeed, Santorum was the first candidate this year to fully embrace Ryan’s proposed reforms — with this exception, as he reminded me in a phone interview on Thursday: “I’ve criticized Ryan on one thing: waiting ten years [for many of the reforms to kick in]. We can’t afford to wait. We’ve got to start now.”