Ross Douthat on Rick Santorum

At Campaign Stops, Ross offers the following sobering thoughts on Santorum as the Republican presidential nominee:

In the (still-unlikely) event that Santorum captured the nomination, then, his campaign would probably be to social conservatism what Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign was to small-government conservatism: A losing effort that would inspire countless observers to declare the loser’s worldview discredited, rejected, finished.

In the longer run, a Santorum candidacy might suggest a path that a more electable pro-life populist could follow, much as Reagan ultimately followed Goldwater.

But in the short run, it would almost certainly be a debacle – a sweeping defeat for the candidate himself, and a sweeping setback for the causes that he champions.

It is worth recalling that the outcome of the 1964 presidential election paved the way for the Social Security Act of 1965, which gave us Medicare. As Peter Suderman illustrates in his excellent article on “Medicare Whac-a-Mole,” the new program quickly outstripped early cost projections. And now, as we’ve often discussed, health entitlements are driving the increase in government expenditures at the federal, state, and local level. 

The 2012 presidential election will be remembered as a very important one. The new health law’s coverage expansion will begin in earnest in 2014, and the regulations governing the health system are already being drafted by HHS and will continue to take shape under the next president. Medicare expenditures are expected to increase dramatically as the baby boomers continue to retire in large numbers, thus making structural reform of the program designed to restrain cost growth even more urgent than it is now. Conservatives need to get behind a presidential candidate who can win this election, because the train is about to leave the station. Changing course after 2016 or 2020 will be far more difficult than many people seem to understand. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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