Who’s the True Conservative?
Gingrich and Santorum have their weaknesses, too.


Mona Charen

The theme for this year’s primary season was set back in May 2011. Recall that the Republican-dominated House of Representatives had just done something that cynics said would not and could not be done. They voted for a budget — the Paul Ryan budget — that actually began to tackle the problem of limitless entitlement spending.

The cliché about entitlements (the “third rail”) had been largely true. Neither Republicans nor Democrats had shown the courage to tell middle-class voters that Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security would have to change. But on April 15, all but four Republicans (and zero Democrats) voted for a budget that would block-grant Medicaid to the states, and gradually transform Medicare from the whale-shark entitlement that threatens to swallow all other federal spending into a premium-support program.

Naturally, Republicans got no credit for this principled vote from the usual suspects (the press, liberal commentators, professors). But you’d think fellow Republicans and conservatives would offer at least a pat on the back. Nope. Just a few weeks later, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, appearing on Meet the Press, labeled the Ryan budget “too radical” and “right-wing social engineering,” which, Gingrich explained, he opposed as much as “left-wing social engineering.”

As Ryan said at the time, “With allies like that, who needs the left?”

It set the tone for what was to come. While claiming to save the Republican party from the supposedly “moderate” Romney, one after another of the Republican presidential candidates has seized the slogans of the Left — even of the Occupy movement — to make his case. Judging by campaign rhetoric, there is really only one conservative left in the race, and that’s Romney.

A few weeks after Meet the Press, Gingrich reversed himself on the Ryan budget. A spokesman said “there is little daylight between Ryan and Gingrich on Medicare.” But Gingrich was soon sounding like Michael Moore regarding Romney’s career at Bain Capital. “Is capitalism really about the ability of a handful of rich people to manipulate the lives of thousands of other people and walk off with the money, or is that somehow a little bit of a flawed system?” asked the self-styled “Reagan conservative.” Romney’s wealth, Gingrich said, came from a model of “leverage the game, borrow the money, leave the debt behind, and walk off with all the profits. . . . I think it’s exploitive. I think it’s not defensible.”

Rick Santorum, to his credit, resisted the Occupy Wall Street–style Bain bashing. But on the day of the Michigan primary, he sponsored robocalls that urged Democrats to cross over and vote for him, saying, “Romney supported the bailouts for his Wall Street billionaire buddies, but opposed the auto bailouts. That was a slap in the face to every Michigan worker.”

Really? Was opposing the bailout of GM and Chrysler a “slap in the face” to the Michiganders who work for Ford, a company that declined to seek a bailout? And, by the way, every Michigan worker paid for that bailout. Is Rick Santorum now adopting the Left’s posture — and that of President Obama — that being pro-worker means favoring government bailouts of companies that make poor business decisions? And doesn’t Santorum feel even a twinge of embarrassment at making these arguments when 1) he claims to be a free-marketeer, and 2) he himself opposed the auto bailouts?


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