Nobody expects the Republican presidential nominee to be a libertarian purist, but it helps if he or she at least has a libertarian streak. In Rick Santorum's case, he's actively hostile toward libertarianism, and that's an obstacle not only to him winning the nomination, but also to having a chance in a general election against President Obama.
With Santorum emerging as a true contender for the Republican nomination, he's been coming under fire for his many votes to expand government. He took earmarks, voted for the Medicare prescription drug plan and backed No Child Left Behind. He pushed dairy subsidies, steel tariffs and sided with unions over workers.
On the other hand, should he win the Republican nomination, he'll come under fire for his views on social issues. To be clear, it's one thing to make a moral case for protecting the right to life of the unborn, which Santorum does passionately. But it's another thing to argue, as he did in an interview last October, "One of the things I will talk about that no President has talked about before is I think the dangers of contraception in this country, the whole sexual libertine idea." Well, there's a reason why no president has talked about these things -- because the president has absolutely no business lecturing Americans about their sex lives. If there's a discussion to be had about sexual promiscuity in society, it should be left to churches and other private institutions.
As Cato's Gene Healy noted in his Washington Examiner column on the topic this week, Santorum explicitly declared, "I am not a libertarian, and I fight very strongly against libertarian influence within the Republican Party and the conservative movement."
This is a stark departure from Ronald Reagan, who had this to say to the libertarian Reason magazine in a 1975 interview:
If you analyze it I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism. I think conservatism is really a misnomer just as liberalism is a misnomer for the liberals–if we were back in the days of the Revolution, so-called conservatives today would be the Liberals and the liberals would be the Tories. The basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom and this is a pretty general description also of what libertarianism is.
Now, I can’t say that I will agree with all the things that the present group who call themselves Libertarians in the sense of a party say, because I think that like in any political movement there are shades, and there are libertarians who are almost over at the point of wanting no government at all or anarchy. I believe there are legitimate government functions. There is a legitimate need in an orderly society for some government to maintain freedom or we will have tyranny by individuals. The strongest man on the block will run the neighborhood. We have government to insure that we don’t each one of us have to carry a club to defend ourselves. But again, I stand on my statement that I think that libertarianism and conservatism are travelling the same path.
Ever since that time, Republicans have gotten into trouble when they have veered too far from libertarianism. If Santorum had a modicum of respect for libertarian philosophy, he would have been reluctant to embrace big government Republicanism during the Bush era. Instead, he cast votes that will make it harder for him to consolidate conservative support in the weeks and months ahead as his record undergoes more scrutiny. A libertarian streak would also make him a bit more skeptical about government's ability to shape a more moral society. And by promising to lecture Americans on sex as a president as the GOP nominee, he'd ensure a Democratic rout in November.