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.”
It was his enthusiasm for entitlement reform (probably combined with pressures from being in the Senate leadership at the time, although he won’t say so) that, Santorum says, led him into the vote about which rightward critics most often carp: the creation in 2003 of the Medicare Part D prescription-drug program. As expensive as it was, Part D did embrace three conservative goals.
“First was health savings accounts,” Santorum has said. “They were a passion of mine since 1992 when John Kasich and I introduced the first bill proposing them. This bill allowed them, for the first time. Second was the Medicare Advantage program: a precursor, I thought, to what Ryan is proposing now, a private-sector proposal for Medicare prescription drugs which we thought could be an example to transform the whole system. Third was competition among insurers [rather than service delivery through the government].”
“What I tried to do is take lemons and make lemonade,” he said. “I said even at the time that it was a 51–49 decision for me.”
Those features of the program worked, with individual premiums and the government tab both running as much as 40 percent below original projections. Most conservatives still will argue, rightly and convincingly, that the prescription-drug program wasn’t worth the cost unless it was part of broader Medicare reform. The good thing is, there is no doubt that a crusading President Santorum would try to accomplish just that.
As for overall spending and his much-discussed history of support for “earmarks” (a position also shared by tightwad Ron Paul), conservative groups’ ratings show that Santorum was better than the average Republican, despite representing a state far bluer than those of most of his Republican colleagues. He demonstrated particular courage in his support for the Freedom to Farm Act and in frequent opposition to floor amendments that would have put additional spending in appropriations bills. Denizens of Capitol Hill in the 1990s fondly remember Santorum’s repeated use of a prop during floor debate called the “Spendometer,” which he used to make a persuasive (and entertaining) case against wasteful federal largesse.
Out of office, he vociferously opposed TARP, the various “stimulus” packages, and the bailouts of car companies and of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. All those stances were perfectly in line with the voting record he had established in the House and Senate.
A final criticism, emanating from Rick Perry’s camp, concerns Santorum’s votes in the mid-1990s against federal right-to-work (RTW) legislation. Santorum now says that as a senator representing a non-RTW state, he objected to national legislation on federalist grounds. He notes that federalism is not, in his mind, an all-encompassing consideration for individual states’ prerogatives, but one that should be the default position absent a sweeping moral imperative (such as the protection of unborn children). He has always supported RTW at the state level — and he has long since changed his position to favor it at the national level as well.
Spokesman Matt Beynon said the switch was sincere, growing in part from discussions Santorum had with tea-party favorite Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina. However the switch came about, Santorum answered all nine questions on a recent survey from the National Right to Work Committee in ways that should thrill any conservative. He pledged to oppose compulsory union dues, support repeal of mandatory union representation for federal workers, oppose “card check” union elections, oppose “project labor agreements” requiring union wages even for non-unionized federal work, and took the RTW position on all five other issues in the questionnaire as well.
Because friend and foe alike agree that Santorum’s word is his bond, there is every reason to trust each of those pledges.
Perhaps, though, the wisest way for conservatives to assess Santorum is not with exhaustive issue-purity tests, but rather by considering the man’s overarching values. For anybody who has watched Santorum’s career since his first upset victory in 1990, the idea of him as anything other than a solid conservative on economics, defense, or social issues is patently absurd.
Conservative-movement leader Colin Hanna, president of the Let Freedom Ring public-policy organization, is a Pennsylvanian who has followed Santorum’s career closely since his first Senate race in 1994. Hanna says he has come to know Santorum fairly well; he has played golf with him and otherwise shared time with him on private occasions, where a person’s character and beliefs are often easier to discern than on the public stage. Hanna, nobody’s idea of a squishy moderate, blasted the “big-government conservative” label as a “canard that is designed to ensnare Rick — an unfair and genuinely deceptive charge.”
“I think Rick was sounding the themes of the Tea Party long before the Tea Party came along,” Hanna told me. “He talks and acts like a freedom-agenda, Reagan guy. He has a deep passion and you see that in every aspect of his personality. He truly believes that most government programs, particularly social programs, trap rather than empower the people they are designed to serve. . . . His attitude was to make these programs work by liberating their beneficiaries rather than enslaving their beneficiaries. Therefore the solution to big-government social programs is in fact their restructuring, and perhaps their outright elimination. Ipso facto, that leads to smaller, not bigger, government.”
Or, as conservative talk-radio host Mark Levin asked me rhetorically Thursday night, “If Rick Santorum is not a consistent, principled conservative, certainly in the 90 percent category, then who is?”
Of one thing conservatives can be absolutely sure: Unlike politicians who lack the courage of conservative convictions, Rick Santorum will fight for his causes and not be scared off by “establishment” criticism. In four uphill elections and in legislative skirmishes for conservative ends too numerous to count, Santorum has won a decidedly impressive number of his fights.
— Quin Hillyer is a senior fellow at the Center for Individual Freedom and a senior editor for The American Spectator.