Rick Santorum stepped up to the podium at the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority Conference this morning and delivered an impassioned argument for the Republican Party to become the party of the working class. Rather than joining many of his fellow speakers in bashing President Obama or Hillary Clinton, Santorum set out his vision for the future of the GOP. The platform he created, and the pointed jab he made at Mitt Romney, seemed like early preparation for a 2016 bid. His decision not to preach to the choir, however, left his speech with a subdued reception—cordial, but hardly enthusiastic.
“We are a party, we are a movement, that continues to focus on certain issues that I believe are—well—not as relevant as they used to be,” Santorum said. Referring not only to Wall Street and big corporations, Santorum was also critiquing the Republican emphasis on small businesses and business owners, and questioned the widespread conservative rejection of President Obama’s “You didn’t build that.” The populist conservatives at the conference sat in silence as they listened to the laborer’s populism Santorum was advocating.
Santorum believes Republicans must speak to, with, and about workers in America. It’s the theme of his book and brand, Blue Collar Conservatives, and explains his focus on economic and social values. Santorum seems to believe that the “average American” is a social conservative, and a social values-focused Republican Party can appeal to the working class. His main focus, families, is also foundational to his economic policy. “Every family in America is a little business,” he said. After pointing out that the word “economy” comes from the Greek for “home,” Santorum continued, “When those little family units aren’t functioning well, the economy doesn’t function well.”
The foundation of family is marriage, and Santorum said that Republicans must concern themselves less with the definitional argument over marriage and more with “reclaiming marriage as the good that it is for our economy and our country. Marriage is a public good.” He went on to declare that “Our tax code is anti-marriage,” and argue that welfare discourages marriage because impoverished single mothers receive monetary benefits but the married poor do not.
Beyond family health, Santorum’s economic plan is built on manufacturing, and specifically encouraging manufacturers to return to the United States. His focus is employment and in his speech he worried that the Republican focus on wealth alienated those who simply want to work nine to five. He advocated for vocational schools and encouraging people to enter the workforce directly after high school. “It’s a good thing for us to be on the side of the worker,” he said. “It’s time to start talking to America again.”
Santorum seemed to realize that his brand of laborer’s economics appears to oppose the trickle-down theories of popular conservatism. He pointed to Reagan as an example of addressing the issues of the time, and chided conservatives who live forty years in the past rather than looking at the problems of today. To Santorum, those problems are the worker’s problems: his marriage, his family, and his job. To his audience, polite applause appeared to be a sufficient response. Perhaps Santorum’s vision for America the worker’s paradise reminded them of the worker’s red utopia of forty years ago.