Mitt Romney's campaign is now targeting GOP rival Rick Santorum as a big-spending Washington insider. On a conference call Tuesday afternoon, former Missouri senator and Romney surrogate Jim Talent criticized Santorum’s support for expanding government spending, including his vote for the Medicare Part D in 2003—a program for which Talent himself voted.
“Senator Santorum is running in Missouri as a trusted and comprehensive conservative,” Talent said. “He certainly has been outspoken on social issues, and we honor his record in that regard, but when you get outside those issues into fiscal, spending, regulatory issues, his record shows that he’s been in the liberal wing of the Republican party.”
Talent continued, pointing to a few votes that show Santorum’s “liberal” spending record. “I want to note that Senator Santorum voted for No Child Left Behind, which was a big expansion of federal power over local education,” he said. “He voted for Medicare Part D, a big expansion of a federal entitlement.”
Asked about the validity of these criticisms, particularly since Talent himself had a similar voting record to Santorum while both men served in the Senate, Talent said he would be “happy” to compare his record to Santorum’s if they were running against each other.
“[But] he’s running against Governor Romney,” Talent said. “The point is that Mitt Romney has a much more comprehensively conservative record than Rick does…. He’s running on a comprehensively conservative agenda now, the most conservative anybody’s run on since Reagan. So it’s his record against Rick Santorum’s, which is an issue in Missouri. And Senator Santorum is portraying as a Jim DeMint conservative in Missouri, and it’s just not true.”
Talent followed up with THE WEEKLY STANDARD, calling back to explain his comments further. Talent clarified that he didn’t mean to say that Santorum’s (and his own) votes for bills like Medicare Part D can’t “be explained or justified, because they can” but that Santorum’s self-described image as a true conservative doesn’t reflect the truth.
“Today, he’s running in Missouri anyway as a kind of Jim DeMint conservative, which suggests that during his service he was actually much stronger on those issues,” Talent said. “So what he’s suggesting is misleading on two levels. He wasn’t, even for Republicans at that time, he took a more liberal position on these issues, and then if you look at how the party’s judging those things now, it’s just hypocritical of him to suggest to people that he’s the conservative they can trust year in and year out, regardless of where the winds in Washington are going.”
But is this a mantle to which Romney himself could lay claim? After all, Romney’s support for an individual health insurance mandate in his Massachusetts health care law is not as conservative as Santorum’s consistent opposition to such an idea. Talent defended the Massachusetts law as “on balance, a conservative measure” supported by the Heritage Foundation at the time.
“The mandate didn’t bother Rick four years ago when he endorsed Governor Romney [for president],” Talent added.