The Two Faces of Rick Santorum

Today’s David Brooks column makes a good point. While Rick Santorum is one of the very most odious Senators on “culture war” issues, he’s also — for a Republican — something of a creative thinker and semi-serious thinker on questions related to the wretched of the earth, both at home and in the third world. Mark Schmitt actually did a fantastic column on this a ways back reviewing Santorum’s book and came to this conclusion:

These innovative solutions may have caused liberals some discomfort decades ago, but a dozen years after the passage of federal empowerment zones and Bill Clinton’s legislation to support community banks, “empowerment” is now very much the core strategy of modern liberalism. One might be tempted to say, as Santorum does of Senator Clinton, that behind Santorum’s rhetoric is a “left agenda,” but that wouldn’t be fair.

That’s because Santorum is prepared for this challenge. In his conclusion, he warns that “some will dismiss my ideas as an extended version of ‘compassionate conservatism.’” But it is not, he insists, because of his insistence on “moral capital,” at least as defined by him. In other words, even if liberals advocate some of the same policy solutions, they are doomed simply because they are associated with the moral tolerance of liberals. And so, in the end, it is not as easy as I had hoped it would be to separate Santorum’s interesting and laudable ideas on poverty and work-family balance from his mean-spirited and intolerant social views; they are wholly interdependent. Rather than compassionate conservatism, Santorum has fashioned something new: a mean-spirited, intolerant liberalism.

I think that’s probably right. At any rate, Santorum will almost certainly lose his seat and that will almost certainly be a change for the better. I do think, however, that Santorum was gesturing in the direction of the future of the Republican Party. These days, most of the cool kids seem to be writing books (accurately) accusing Bush of abandonning much of what’s traditionally been understood as “conservatism” and then arguing (much less persuasively) that this abandonmnet of small government orthodoxy has been the problem with Bush. Much more plausible, I think, is that Bush had the idea roughly correct — the GOP needs something like “compassionate conservatism,” an American Christian Democracy — but ran a policy shop that was far too inept and corrupt to put much meat on the bones. Someday, though, someone will figure it out.