What happened to Rick Santorum on Wednesday night?

Most pundits believe that he performed very poorly, and indeed he was on the defensive for much of the evening for his record in the United States Senate. The portion of the debate about earmarks was a particular low point:

[T]he idea that somehow earmarks during the time that I was in Congress were this thing that drove up spending in Washington, D.C., if you actually look at it, as I said before, as a percentage of GDP, actually the deficits -- the debt went down. What happened is there was abuse.

When abuse happened, I said we should stop the earmarking process. But I did say there were good earmarks and bad earmarks.

We wouldn't have the V-22 Osprey, which was the most essential air platform for our Marines in particular in the war against the radical Islamists. We wouldn't have it if it wasn't for an earmark. That program would have been killed under George Bush 41. Dick Cheney, the Defense Department, wanted to kill that program, and many of us, including myself, stood up and made sure that was there….

I defended that at the time. I'm proud I defended it at the time, because I think they did make mistakes. I do believe there was abuse, and I said we should stop it, and as president I would oppose earmarks.

This might have been a weak response – arguing that earmarks do not cost that much, mentioning a defense earmark that most people have never heard of, then boasting about his flip-flop on the issue.

But is this a fair way to characterize Santorum’s career in the Senate? In many respects, it isn’t. For instance, Jeffrey Anderson and Andy Wickersham argue persuasively that legislative scores from the National Taxpayer’s Union put Santorum well within the conservative spectrum. And indeed, a broader gauge of legislative voting confirms this. This is the DW-Nominate methodology developed by Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal, which uses all congressional votes to rank members of Congress on a left-right ideological spectrum. The following graphs place Santorum against his fellow senators during his time in the Senate (from the 104th Congress to the 109th). Republican senators are identified in red, Democrats in blue, and Santorum’s position is an X.

Santorum is pretty comfortably situated in the middle of the Republican caucus, which was well to the right of the Democrats, for his entire term. This is pretty impressive, seeing as how Pennsylvania is a Democratic-leaning state and his fellow “Republican,” Arlen Specter, inevitably positioned himself smack dab in the middle of the chamber. Santorum was not playing it safe by being so conservative, that’s for sure.

But there is another perspective, which is not so favorable to Santorum. The United States Congress is now a dysfunctional institution; congressional behavior oftentimes reminds me of those mortgage-backed securities that precipitated the housing crisis – massive, complicated packages of home loans designed to spread risk around. That is kind of how the congressional logroll works. Much of what Congress does can be chalked up to members trying to get reelected, and that means sending the bacon back home to the district. But it would be politically impractical for members to put specific items up for a vote one-by-one, so they group them all together, so that everybody votes for your pork and you vote for everybody else’s pork simultaneously. Thus, Santorum never got to choose between “good” earmarks and “bad” earmarks – he had to vote for all or none. That’s how it is designed to work.

Additionally, Republican majorities in the Bush era hardly acted in a manner consistent with the Tea Party ethos. Non-defense discretionary spending increased in most years, and No Child Left Behind and the Medicare Part D program were two of the biggest legislative achievements during this period. It was not a time of great budget discipline, including on the Republican side, and Santorum was right there in the middle of it.

So Santorum was a good conservative who was caught up in a bad process – and rather than rage against the machine, as Ron Paul usually chose to do, he claims that he played along to bend the policy needle in the conservative direction when and how he could. But, as we saw is Wednesday night's debate, Romney could argue just as aggressively that he was part of the problem.

And the bad news for Santorum is that, should he win the nomination, this problem will only become more acute. Not only will Team Obama go after Santorum for all of those earmark votes, they can also use the “gotcha” votes that the Democratic leadership engineer to make Republican senators look bad. Both sides regularly do this, forcing meaningless votes to prove that Republicans want to cut taxes for trillionaires or Democrats want to stop oil exploration. In context, these votes have no meaning whatsoever, but taken alone they can make a mainstream conservative like Santorum look like a dangerous extremist.

This is all a consequence of running for the presidency after having spent twelve years in a massively unpopular institution. Even though he was a good, hardworking senator during his time in office, he was part of a broken branch of government. So, Romney – and eventually Obama – can make him look like he was part of the problem, even if he really wasn’t.

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