The Santorum problem

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They said Rick Perry was too much like George W. Bush. They said Republicans were in danger of nominating Zombie Reagan.

They were wrong, about all of it, as we now know.

Who says Iowa’s meaningless?

Rick Santorum is the race’s closest cognate to Zombie Bush, and his sudden rise to the top of the GOP heap reintroduces the painful Bush-era problem Republicans must now confront and resolve.

Helped along by the manic rise and fall of front-runner after front-runner, the candidates’ awkward conspiracy of silence surrounding the Bush years almost succeeded. Only Ron Paul dared remind Republicans of the unresolved issues not so neatly buried in their not-so-distant past. Even with his strong Iowa finish, however, Paul’s newsletters are a millstone around his campaign.

At the same time, Michele Bachmann’s deviance from establishment orthodoxy — on the debt ceiling, for instance — has done nothing to forestall her own cave-in.

And poor Rick Perry is left wondering how the longest-serving governor in America could be trounced by an ex-senator who endorsed Arlen Specter and lost his own re-election campaign by nearly 20 points.

The hard answer is that a lot of Republicans want to party like it’s 2006.

A lot of social conservatives are willing to hop in the time machine if it means a last-ditch effort at wresting the culture back through the application of law.

And a growing number of elites and media figures — including Rupert Murdoch! — see in Rick Santorum what Mitt Romney tried so hard to be in 2008: a walking, talking three-legged stool, one part business interests, one part moral values, and one part international toughness. That traditionally winning formula seemed to fail because Republicans wanted independent-mindedness and reform. It actually failed because Romney couldn’t credibly deliver the message.

Santorum can. A lot of Republicans — too many Republicans — like that.

The left sees this as a problem because they reject Santorum’s moral code. But the difficulty is more sophisticated than that.

Santorum talks the talk on cutting spending and balancing budgets. He’s come out forcefully against TARP and the GM bailout. He sounds like a real deficit hawk. And everyone — not just Republicans — has come to assume that debt-slashers stand foursquare for small government.

This is misleading. As David Boaz of the Cato Institute has observed, Rick Santorum ran for re-election as a pork-barrel politician. He has admitted that he strikes his opponents as a big-government conservative. Santorum believes that the only thing standing between “radical individualism” and traditional American culture is the exercise of national political power. Liberals like The Washington Post’s Suzy Khimm have already latched onto the idea that the hallmark of Santorum’s reform platform is “tax policy as social policy.”

Rick Santorum is a firm, sometimes eloquent champion of moral discipline. But the Bush years proved beyond question how difficult it is to cabin off “good” interventions in the minute details of our moral lives from “bad” interventions in our finances, our health care, our education, and other similarly sweeping areas.

Ramming the point home, the Obama presidency has demonstrated how the advance and application of centralized federal power always takes on a moral character in the hearts and minds of its exponents. “When people hurt, government’s got to move” — who can draw lines around the scope and reach of that infamous Bushism? Not Barack Obama. Rick Santorum?

Not likely. The Republican establishment — that half-mythical beast — has a vested interest in sweeping unpleasant questions like these far, far under the rug of election-year politics. GOP strategists and analysts are persuaded that defeating Barack Obama and securing a durable majority requires “winning the working class” — an impossible task, they say, in lieu of outright redistributive subsidies, packaged and sold as moral imperatives in an age of decay.

Does America deserve a working class — or a middle class — if it is dependent for its existence on the federal government? Few wish to ask, and fewer wish to answer.

What does it really mean to have faith in the essential decency of the American people? What sort of courage is required to govern as if the onus is on the American people to keep their own freedom and their own social order?

Rick Santorum’s candidacy takes these matters and puts them in a lockbox — a lockbox about as secure as the Social Security trust fund.

Hopefully, Santorum’s rise will inspire Republicans to face up to that inescapable fact.

Are you feeling the hope?

James Poulos is a columnist at The Daily Caller, a contributor at Ricochet, and a commentator in print, online, and on television and radio. Recently he has been the host of The Bottom Line and Reform School on PJTV and a fellow of the Claremont Institute. His website is jamespoulos.com and his Twitter handle is @jamespoulos.

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