The Daily Caller

The Daily Caller

The Santorum problem

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.”