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Will Santorum's big gov't conservatism resonate?

Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum's surprisingly strong performance in last night's Iowa caucus has thrust him into the spotlight as the latest potential conservative alternative to Mitt Romney.

But Santorum's success has come largely under the radar -- at least until the last few days -- driven by his near monomaniacal focus on Iowa and the state's network of social-conservative evangelical voters. Now, however, Santorum's record will come under much more intensive scrutiny -- and it is a record that should give supporters of limited government considerable pause.

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In a general election, where the focus is almost certainly going to be on economic issues, it is questionable whether Santorum’s relentless focus on social issues will play well with independent voters, especially in the crucial suburbs. It was the loss of those suburbs, where voters tend to be socially moderate but economically conservative, in states such as Indiana, North Carolina, and Virginia, that gave those states to Obama in 2008.

In the wake of the economic chaos, higher debt and taxes, and growth in government — not to mention a government takeover of health care — those voters have now turned against President Obama. The tea-party-inspired Republican victories of 2010 were a sign of that.

But there is reason to question whether Santorum is the candidate to build on that shift.

After all, the Tea Party and 2010 elections were largely about economic issues and the desire to limit the size, cost, and intrusiveness of government. And those issues are not Santorum’s strong suit.

There is no doubt that Santorum is deeply conservative on social issues. He is ardently anti-abortion, even in cases of rape and incest, and no one takes a stronger stand against gay rights. In fact, with his comparison of gay sex to “man on dog” relationships, Santorum seldom even makes a pretense of tolerance. While that sort of rhetoric may play well in Iowa pulpits, it will be far less well received elsewhere in the nation.

At the same time, on economic and size-of-government issues, Santorum’s record is much weaker. In fact, Eric Erickson of Red State refers to Santorum as a “pro-life statist.”

Mainstream Republicans When Hillary Clinton was justly excoriated by conservatives for her book It Takes A Village, which advocated greater government involvement in our lives, Rick Santorum countered with his book, It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good, which advocated greater government involvement in our lives. Among the many government programs he supported: national service, publicly financed trust funds for children, community-investment incentives, and economic-literacy programs in “every school in America” (italics in original).

Santorum’s voting record shows that he embraced George Bush–style “big-government conservatism.” For example, he supported the Medicare prescription-drug benefit and No Child Left Behind. 

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He never met an earmark that he didn’t like. In fact, it wasn’t just earmarks for his own state that he favored, which might be forgiven as pure electoral pragmatism, but earmarks for everyone, including the notorious “Bridge to Nowhere.” The quintessential Washington insider, he worked closely with Tom DeLay to set up the “K Street Project,” linking lobbyists with the GOP leadership.

He voted against NAFTA and has long opposed free trade. He backed higher tariffs on everything from steel to honey. He still supports an industrial policy with the government tilting the playing field toward manufacturing industries and picking winners and losers.

In fact, Santorum might be viewed as the mirror image of Ron Paul. If Ron Paul’s campaign has been based on the concept of simply having government leave us alone, Santorum rejects that entire concept. True liberty, he writes, is not “the freedom to be left alone,” but “the freedom to attend to one’s duties to God, to family, and to neighbors.” And he seems fully prepared to use the power of government to support his interpretation of those duties.

Of course it is possible to read too much into Santorum’s performance. As well as he did, he underperformed Mike Huckabee’s 2008 totals. And Huckabee was unable to sell his brand of big-government social conservatism beyond Iowa. But if the Iowa Caucuses have shown us anything, it is that there still is a fight over what kind of party the GOP will be.

Bio: Michael Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and author of Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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