Rick Santorum's Case for Big Government

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Like many social conservatives, he insists you can't have small government without strong families and religious faith. Don't many Americans already lack those things?

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Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels stoked controversy in the conservative movement when he called for a truce on social issues so that Republicans could focus on the deficit. Values voters were outraged -- had Daniels run for president, it might have prevented him from winning the GOP primary. Less remarked upon, however, is the difficulty facing Republicans who prioritize social issues as the Tea Party exerts its influence and voters focus on the bad economy. The fact that Mike Huckabee lacks small-government bona fides surely helps explain why he decided against running. And former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum faces a variation on the same problem, despite the fact that his desire for smaller government is unimpeachable.

The federal government exists to protect life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, Santorum says, "not to take care of people." It may seem as if his position is identical to every other Republican contender. There is, however, a significant difference. Unlike libertarians, whose primary pitch is that the Constitution constrains what the federal government can do, and unlike economic conservatives, who argue that small government permits us to become more prosperous because the market is left to work its magic, social conservatives like Santorum insist that it's impossible to separate a desire for small government from a focus on social issues.

Here is Santorum clarifying his reasoning:

Of course we care about our jobs, we care about money, but we care about our families...The family is the first economy. If the family breaks down, well, government gets bigger because of the consequences of family breakdown. We see in the neighborhoods where there are no marriages and there are no two-parent families. You can't ignore the reality that faith and family are integral parts of having limited government, lower taxes, and free societies.

We are either gonna be constrained by internal controls, internal restraint on our behavior or we're gonna be restrained by external restraints -- and when people say, "We can live free and people can do whatever they want to do," show me an example of that in human history. It doesn't work.

Right or wrong, do you see why that makes some economic conservatives and libertarians nervous? The family has broken down in many American communities. Lots of kids are born out of wedlock. Fathers are locked up in jail. In some communities, fewer people attend church or subscribe to anything social conservatives would regard as faith. By Santorum's logic, these communities lack an integral requirement for limited government. In his telling, all human history suggests that they're consigned to fail due to the dearth of these internal constraints unless they get some "external restraints." So do Baltimore, Oakland, Memphis, New Haven, St. Louis, and Detroit need big government now? Or should conservatives continue trying to eliminate it?

What about the rest of America?

Though he'd never put it this way, Santorum's logic suggests that either the social indicators he bemoans start trending in a socially conservative direction, or else big government is our inescapable fate. Try selling that to a coalition of Tea Partiers, small businesspeople, and country club Republicans! They may be more socially conservative than the average voter, but they aren't about to agree that big government is the only answer if in coming years there happens to be falling religiosity, more gay marriage, a higher teen birthrate, and more absentee fathers.

This is the dilemma of the social conservative. Either you embrace the Sam's Club agenda of Mike Huckabee, and get dinged by fiscal conservatives for wanting to spend too much on social programs, or you go the Rick Santorum route, toe the line on size of government and spending, tell your fiscal conservative supporters that they need to support you on social issues too or else the whole project is lost, and realize that for a lot of them, there are no circumstances that justify big government -- even the continued breakdown of the American family.

Interestingly, guys like Rush Limbaugh don't seem to recognize this tension. It's on his radio show that Santorum talked about the importance of social issues, and the talk radio host complimented him for it. For Limbaugh, it's important both morally and politically for Republican candidates to take a hard line on issues like abortion -- to be unapologetically conservative -- and anathema to suggest anything so wimpy as a truce with the dread liberal left.

The importance of social issues weren't the only subject of note during the interview. In GOP primaries, most candidates wind up going through Limbaugh's radio program, and inevitably pander a bit to the host. Until Rick Santorum's interview this week, however, I cannot recall anyone implying that the interviewer might be the better candidate. "The person who's been able to win the presidency since the age of television has had one thing in common. They've been the best communicator in the race," Santorum said. "We need someone like a Rush Limbaugh who can communicate and can touch the soul of Americans and can reach out across the radio and television and paint a vision that helps drop those scales, that can remind people what a great country we are because we believe in free people."

Is Rick Santorum the most adept communicator in the race? It's hard to see. Is he a better communicator than Barack Obama? Suffice it to say that in a race between the two that wouldn't be Santorum's comparative advantage. And why does Santorum think that a great communicator is what the right needs? The answer isn't particularly flattering to the American electorate:

RUSH: You ever ask yourself where the American people are politically?  Do you ever fear the American people just maybe want a European socialist country, that they'd rather be dependent on government?  Does that worry you?

SANTORUM: Well, you know, Rush, 'cause you combat it every day with the popular culture and the media and academic institutions, that gets pounded away every day into the minds of our young people, and I don't know how many times I've listened on your show where people said, "You know, you opened, the scales fell from my eyes. It's finally making sense to me. I understand all of these lies I've been told."

The notion that everyone who disagrees with Santorum needs deprogramming is going to be a tough sell to independents in a general election. But he isn't going to get there anyway. A guy like George W. Bush can win a GOP primary by making a case for economic conservatism and emphasizing his socially conservative values. But no Republican can win by explicitly insisting that the cases for fiscal conservatism and small government rely on social conservatism's triumph.

The implications are too unsettling. 

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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