During Rick Santorum's ascendency to the top tier of candidates (a new CBS News poll shows him leading the GOP nomination battle by a slight margin), my libertarian brethren began to narrow in on the former Pennsylvania senator's fiscal sins.
Yes, Santorum supported the policy malfeasance of the Bush years -- the prescription drug expansion, No Child Left Behind, and profligate earmarks, to name just three. Yes, Santorum supported Arlen Specter for re-election, to the chagrin of conservatives everywhere. I'm sympathetic to Ron Paul's position on the Patriot Act, so I disagree with Santorum's support for that law. I would rather be free than safe, and such intrusion by the federal government is anything but conservative in principle.
No doubt, Santorum's affinity (at least by conservative standards) for big labor is a problem. He isn't a pure free marketeer. He doesn't have a spotless record, and his grasp of economics isn't awe-inspiring.
That said, who is Santorum's chief opponent? Mitt Romney. I could better understand the logic of railing against Santorum if his rival were, say, Paul Ryan. But as it stands, the harsh criticism is unreasonable, especially given Romney's own dicey record. One libertarian Cato Institute scholar goes so far as to urge a Santorum nomination on the thesis that he will suffer a 10-point loss and, as a result of the embarrassment, purge the Republican Party of social and foreign-policy conservatives.
So much for the GOP's three-legged stool.
Santorum supported big-government conservative causes along with most Republicans during the Bush years. That's bad. But Romney has flipped on most major policy issues that Republicans -- and libertarians -- care deeply about. It's relatively easy to argue the former Massachusetts governor has been a statist most of his political life, but harder to make the same case for Santorum.
More to the point, Romney was the architect of the prototype for Obamacare. Aside from jobs, that invasive law will be the number one issue in the campaign this summer and fall. Not the prescription drug benefit. Not No Child Left Behind. Not earmarks. Not labor unions. Underestimating the value of having a candidate with a clear record on Obamacare can't be overstated. Romney doesn't have it. Santorum does.
To be fair, libertarian commentators have harshly criticized Romney, and rightly so. But in a face-off between Santorum and Romney, I frequently get the picture that they would much prefer the latter -- even though Romney's policy sins are far more grievous and substantial.
My sense is that libertarian-inclined Republicans detest Santorum's "God talk," and that's driving much of their reproach. Chiefly, they don't like that he has genuine convictions on the sanctity of unborn human life and the importance of traditional marriage. That's their right. But the real question is this: From a strict libertarian perspective, which is the greater threat to freedom in America -- laws restricting abortion and reserving marriage for one man and one woman, or Obamacare and it's "mini-me," Romneycare?
Besides, Santorum's position on abortion and marriage is more mainstream-Republican than the stance espoused by many libertarians. And the general population is quickly coming in line with Santorum's view, more so than with Obama's approach of abortion anywhere and everywhere, financed through coercion by the taxpayer.
Santorum isn't a perfect candidate. Would that he were more Reaganesque in his delivery. The testy approach won't win him points in a debate with Obama. And the fact that he lost in Pennsylvania in 2006 by a double-digit margin is one of his most significant deficits. (To his credit, at least Santorum won consistently in a blue state, without sacrificing his principles, and stood for re-election in a tough year for Republicans, unlike Romney.)
But in a comparison between Santorum and Romney, the more conservative choice is clear. If so-called "bedroom issues" and an aggressive foreign policy are that odious to Republican voters, they have an alternative: Ron Paul. But for conservatives who care about both the fiscal and social health of this country, Santorum -- warts and all -- is the best last man standing.