For one brief moment, Rick Santorum was the ideal Republican candidate for 2012, the perfect consonance of Don't-Tread-On-Me libertarianism and traditional cultural conservatism.
When asked about contraception, which Santorum and the Catholic Church hold to be destructive of marriage and family, Santorum replied, "You know, here's the difference between me and the Left, and they don't get this. Just because I'm talking about it doesn't mean I want a government program to fix it. That's what they do. That's not what we do."
This helped explain why so many liberal politicians and journalists were misunderstanding or lying about what Santorum was saying -- why Nancy Pelosi would assert that Republicans want government to stop women from using contraception and a Salon.com writer would write that Santorum would "send the condom police into America's bedrooms." For many of today's liberals, if something is bad -- like the traditional light bulb, a very high health-insurance deductible, a gas-guzzling car, or a lack of racial diversity -- the government ought to outlaw it.
Maybe they can't comprehend the mind-set of many of today's conservatives, who revere both individual liberty and traditional morality as the necessary conditions for human happiness and thus say that certain behaviors are immoral but shouldn't be illegal. Not only are traditional morality and limited government totally compatible, today they are intimately linked, as the Left uses big government to subsidize abortion providers and force all employers to pay for their employees' contraceptives.
Santorum's debate answer hit the conservative sweet spot -- the moral law should guide our personal actions, and individual liberty should guide our political decisions. But a few moments later, Santorum showed he didn't really believe it. When Ron Paul pressed Santorum on his votes for federal family planning funding, Santorum explained his response: "I said, well, if you're going to have Title X funding, then we're going to create something called Title XX, which is going to provide funding for abstinence-based programs."
Sure enough, if you drill down on Santorum's record, he frequently thinks that problems of personal morality do merit a federal response. Nowhere in Article I, Section 8 does the Constitution authorize Congress to teach kids to forswear sex before marriage. Nor is Santorum's proposed federal funding of crisis pregnancy centers a legitimate federal function. Sure, the Left hits first in the culture war by imposing their morality, but that doesn't mean the correct response is subsidized conservatism.
While he doesn't want to outlaw contraception, Santorum does believe in federal vice laws. He suggested in an interview this year that Congress should outlaw online gambling because, "I think it would be dangerous to our country to have that type of access to gaming on the Internet." He said he opposed allowing gambling in Pennsylvania.
When liberals cry that conservatives are trying to legislate morality, that's typically projection and misdirection from liberal attempts to legislate morality -- they say we're trying to outlaw buying contraception because we oppose their efforts to mandate buying contraception. Santorum is the most frequent target of the bogus "condom police" arguments, even though he has repeatedly stated and written that he doesn't think government at any level should outlaw contraception. But the confusion is not totally unfounded, considering how often Santorum does try to legislate morality.
St. Augustine wisely asked "what does it really matter to a man whose days are numbered what government he must obey, so long as he is not compelled to act against God or his conscience?" This ought to be the Right's threshold in the culture wars. More often than not, in the United States these days, it's the secular Left imposing its morality on the religious Right.
Don't want to photograph a gay wedding? You're fined. Don't want to sell the morning-after pill at your pharmacy? You're driven out of your job. Don't want to pay for your employees' sterilization? You're a criminal. Don't want to subsidize Planned Parenthood with your tax dollars? Tough, pay up.
An alliance between libertarians and conservatives is natural and right today. But Santorum has not only behaved as if he wants to drive the libertarians away, he has openly stated so -- repeatedly.
The proper conservative response is to fight for the liberty of all Americans, including religious conservatives, to manage their own affairs according to what they believe is correct. Increasing the size of government, even in the name of a more moral society, simply gives the Left more weapons to turn on the Right in the culture war -- Obamacare is the perfect example.
Santorum has said he understands this. But his record shows how often he forgets it.
Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.