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Populist convert Santorum takes on Mitt's elites

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After driving a pickup truck through all 99 counties of Iowa, Rick Santorum, a former member of the GOP leadership, has ended up firmly on the conservative Christian, populist side of the GOP's cultural divide. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney, with his co-victory in Tuesday's caucuses, can expect the cosmopolitan, business-friendly elite to rally behind him.

In a powerful victory speech that eclipsed Romney's CEO-style pep-talk, Santorum on Tuesday night attributed his victory to "the same people that President Obama talked about who cling to their guns and their Bibles." And Santorum added, "thank God they do."

Santorum's populist message is at bottom a cultural one. Despite all of Romney's attempts to humanize himself, the former Massachusetts governor still looks like a slick, rich venture capitalist who has spent $17 million on the campaign. Santorum comes across as a hard-working dad from Pittsburgh who has spent less money than any GOP candidate besides Buddy Roemer and who rose to the top by talking to regular people at a Pizza Ranch.

But Santorum's populism is tied up with economic issues, too. With a whiff of Pat Buchanan, Santorum has pushed an economic plan aimed at promoting manufacturing, specifically, by abolishing the corporate income tax for manufacturers. This is unacceptably proletarian to many conservatives and Republicans.

Conservative CNBC host Larry Kudlow, a former economics adviser to Ronald Reagan, attacked Santorum's plan as "terrible." This is a typical reaction from parts of the Right whenever a Republican expresses too much concern for blue-collar workers.

But this GOP reaction is more of an anti-populism, anti-manufacturing sentiment than a strict adherence to free-market principles. It's acceptable among the GOP elites to promote export subsidies (such as the Export-Import Bank), energy subsidies (especially for nuclear power), and bailouts (especially of banks). But Santorum proposes a tax cut, of all things, that favors manufacturers, and suddenly he's crossed the line.

Kudlow is correct when he contends that all corporate tax rates need to be lowered, but even that notion of tax neutrality isn't one you see the supply-siders and GOP leaders embracing -- they all want capital gains tax rates to be lower than income tax rates, thus favoring one means of wealth creation (investment) over another (labor).

Santorum makes a good argument for favoring domestic manufacturing: The net effect of government policy discourages manufacturing in favor of services. Environmental regulations hurt factories, and shipping subsidies favor consolidation of manufacturing, something that often happens overseas.

So most Republicans are fine picking winners and losers, but Santorum these days has the gall to suggest that maybe it's time the factory workers won.

The Santorum-Romney contrast shows up even when the two agree. Romney talks about a restoring a "merit society" instead of the "entitlement society" that Obama promotes. That's fairly standard Republican talk, and Santorum made a similar point Tuesday night, but with a very different moral frame. Speaking of the workingman and woman, Santorum charged that Obama "wants to make them dependent rather than valuing their work."

You see the nuance? Romney is knocking welfare queens. Santorum worries that government is harming the working class. In both accounts, government is the enemy, but the co-conspirators in Romney's account are the victims in Santorum's.

While he has a more labor-friendly record than most conservatives, Santorum is not a career populist. In his last re-election, Santorum was Wall Street's favorite Republican, raising $1 million from the securities and investment industry, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Nor does Santorum have an anti-establishment resume. In his second Senate term, Santorum was a lieutenant of George W. Bush and an agent of the GOP leadership as chairman of the Senate Republican Conference. Santorum has sold out the GOP base for the party establishment more than once -- most notably by saving liberal Arlen Specter from Pat Toomey's conservative primary challenge in 2004.

But when you're up against an opponent raising 30 times as much as you -- and when that opponent, as 2008 Iowa victor Mike Huckabee put it, reminds you of the guy who laid you off -- populism becomes your route.

This populist tack by Santorum will upset much of the GOP elite. But is that really a bad thing?

Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at tcarney@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.

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