Political Hay

Con-fusion

Rick Santorum strains the libertarian-conservative alliance.

By 2.28.12

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The day before the Michigan and Arizona primaries, Rick Santorum took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to lay out a supply-side tax plan coupled with spending cuts to balance the budget. That is to be expected of a leading Republican presidential candidate, which Santorum has become. But for the former Pennsylvania senator, the proposal had an added side benefit: dispelling the charge he is a fiscal liberal.

Santorum isn't a fiscal liberal, of course. During his congressional tenure, the National Taxpayers Union gave Santorum an average career score of 75.2 percent. That's slightly higher than the average Republican score during that time period and much higher than the average for all his colleagues combined. It's hard to imagine that Mitt Romney, whose surrogates are the ones painting Santorum with a liberal brush, would have done better. Newt Gingrich certainly didn't (though Ron Paul did).

As Santorum reminded us in the recent Arizona debate, he "took one for the team" in voting for a massive expansion of the federal Department of Education via No Child Left Behind. He also was a team player in backing the unfunded Medicare prescription drug benefit, which was the biggest new entitlement since LBJ's Great Society, and the 2005 energy bill, which sowed the seeds of Solyndra.

Most of Santorum's fiscal transgressions were due to support for a Republican president's domestic policy initiatives and parochial concerns (he backed the Northeast dairy compact, for instance). A handful of others stemmed from the "compassionate conservatism" of using statist means to traditionalist ends.

This doesn't exactly explain away the defects in his record. Parochialism, partisanship, and misguided attempts to spread conservative values through the state contribute mightily toward government growth when Republicans are in power. But it does put those flaws in a context that makes Erick Erickson's claim that Santorum is a "pro-life statist" seem overly broad.

One reason Santorum's occasional big government votes get so much attention is that he is running as the principled conservative alternative to Romney. That case becomes harder to make when, during the Bush era at least, Santorum and Romney supported some of the same government-growing legislation. But there is one additional important reason: Santorum has no use for libertarianism.

Like Mike Huckabee in 2008, Santorum is running on social traditionalism unleavened by libertarian principle. Neither man completely rejects Republican fiscal orthodoxy on taxes and spending. In fact, Santorum's actual record is to the right of Huckabee's. But in neither case do the two social conservatives base their support for tax and spending cuts in abstract libertarian principle.

Perhaps hoping to attract angry emails, Santorum once declared, "I am not a libertarian, and I fight very strongly against libertarian influence within the Republican Party and the conservative movement." This is reminiscent of Huckabee complaining about the libertarian influence at the Conservative Political Action Conference. "CPAC has been becoming increasingly more libertarian and less Republican over the last few years, one of the reasons I didn't go this year," he said in 2010.

That's not how Ronald Reagan spoke in an interview with Reason magazine in 1975. "If you analyze it I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism," he said. Reagan didn't endorse every libertarian precept or dogma. "We have government to insure that we don't each one of us have to carry a club to defend ourselves," he said. But Reagan recognized the right's libertarian streak.

It's a current in conservative thought every Republican presidential candidate has at least paid lip service to since the GOP nominated Barry Goldwater in 1964. (That is, until Huckabee and Santorum.) Even Pat Buchanan had a sizeable libertarian contingent behind his 1992 and '96 campaigns, drawn in part by his foreign policy message.

Modern American conservatism is the union of libertarian and traditionalist thought. The late National Review senior editor Frank Meyer called this intellectual marriage "fusionism." Meyer explained that the two strains tend to be self-defeating when separated: "truth withers when freedom dies, however righteous the authority that kills it; and free individualism uninformed by moral value rots at its core and soon brings about conditions that pave the way for surrender to tyranny."

Santorum's anti-libertarianism manifests itself in the fairly exapansive view of state police powers he appears to endorse in his criticisms of, naturally, Griswold and Lawrence v. Texas (the latter decision struck down Texas' anti-sodomy laws). The one exception is Santorum's strong criticism of the state-level individual mandate imposed by Romneycare. Otherwise, he seems concerned only by the legal limits on government imposed by the Constitution rather than other principled limits on government power.

That might not matter if Santorum became president. But the effect of his candidacy has been to pull apart libertarians and conservatives. Already we see libertarian commentators mischaracterizing the mainstream social conservative view of contraception (and misconstruing Santorum's position too). Some of Santorum's social conservative supporters are equally hamfisted in their treatment of libertarians.

But conservatives and libertarians need each other. Without a conservative influence, libertarianism frequently becomes unmoored from the common good and the reality-based community. Conservatism, Russell Kirk wrote, is "negation of ideology." William F. Buckley Jr. called it the "politics of reality." Without libertarianism, conservatism often degenerates into Bismarckian welfarism mixed with moralism.

What some people consider warring factions of anti-drug warriors and sexual counterrevolutionaries others call the conservative movement.

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About the Author

W. James Antle III, author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a senior editor of The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jimantle.