Rick Santorum has lost only one race in his long political career, and the loss made him a better candidate. The conservative movement has not definitively won a single race for the Republican presidential nomination since 1984, yet it has been appallingly slow to recognize Santorum’s philosophical and electoral strengths. If conservatives want a winner and a champion, Rick Santorum is their man.
Far too many activists on the right, with too little reason, have believed the assertion that Santorum is some sort of big-government conservative. They base this belief almost entirely on his record of supporting spending earmarks (small potatoes compared with the savings he supported in the form of entitlement and welfare reforms) and on two Bush-era votes while he was the third-ranking senator in the Republican caucus — all of which have been blown out of proportion and removed from context.
The first of those votes was on the No Child Left Behind education bill. These days, most conservatives despise the law. But very few conservatives felt that way ten years ago; their use of it now as an ideological test case is entirely revisionist. At the time, it passed both congressional chambers overwhelmingly: 91–8 in the Senate and 384–45 in the House. Solid conservatives such as Sam Brownback, Jim Bunning, Jeff Sessions, Fred Thompson, Dick Armey, Dan Burton, Steve Chabot, Henry Hyde, J. C. Watts, and Paul Ryan all supported it.
“I hated that bill,” Santorum volunteered in a February 11 interview, digressing from another topic without being prompted. “The president needed it, and it was his signature accomplishment. And we had to do something about education — and testing, done right, was and is a good thing. So I thought I had to take one for the team. It was a mistake.”
The second Bush-era vote was the Medicare Part D prescription-drug program. It put Santorum in a bind. For eleven years, he had pushed relentlessly for the creation of Health Savings Accounts (HSAs), a deeply conservative initiative. Due in large part to his efforts, the Part D bill included them. Anybody who has watched legislators work knows how hard it is for a major reform’s sponsor to abandon it after so much effort. Combined with the inclusion of several other first-ever free-market mechanisms within Part D (such as competition among insurance providers), HSAs gave Santorum reason to stick with the Senate leadership and the president in voting for the new drug program.
Against those two supposed apostasies, the rest of Santorum’s record is exemplary, beginning with his leadership in the Gang of Seven that exposed mostly Democratic corruption at the House’s bank and post office, helping pave the way for the 1994 Republican congressional ascendancy. A pro-growth anti-taxer, he almost always received 100 percent ratings from Americans for Tax Reform and regularly scored in the 80s and 90s with other groups that advocate low taxes. On spending issues and the free market, his ratings were likewise punctuated with 90s and 100s from the likes of the National Federation of Independent Business, the National Small Business Association, the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council, the League of Private Property Voters, and the Campaign for Working Families. His lifetime American Conservative Union rating was 88 — remarkable coming from somebody representing (and elected four times from) a Democratic-leaning district in a Democratic-leaning state. (More on that in a moment.) It takes far more courage to vote that way from western Pennsylvania than from, say, Utah, or a safe seat in Georgia.
Small-government advocates carp about Santorum’s public denunciations of libertarianism, but those denunciations were mostly aimed at social libertarianism and at libertarians’ weak defense policies, not at free-market economics.