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A Winning Message?

The neglected substance of the Santorum campaign.

Jan 16, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 17 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Manchester, N.H.

Photo of Rick Santorum

Rick Santorum’s campaign is more sophisticated than it looks. Superficially, it’s a shoestring operation: Just a few days before the New Hampshire primary, he’s perpetually booked into venues that are two sizes too small. He often speaks without a microphone or professional lighting. The advance work is minimal, usually just a couple of lawn signs tacked to the walls and two small posterboard placards that read “Faith, Family & Freedom” and sit on tripods at the front of the room. On good days, there are enough staffers to man a table near the entrance asking voters to sign up for his list, but this job usually exhausts the staff’s available manpower. As in most successful insurgencies, the candidate is the campaign. And Santorum the candidate is quite impressive.

In Iowa, one could say Santorum got lucky catching a wave. But it wasn’t just luck that translated attention into votes. Santorum was selling something different from the other candidates in the field, and once people noticed that, they responded.

For starters, Santorum embraced cultural issues. At a stop in Marshalltown, Iowa, for instance, he didn’t just talk about abortion​—​a topic rarely engaged by any of the other candidates on the stump​—​he did so in the strongest possible terms. “I don’t believe life begins at conception. I know life begins at conception,” he said. Explaining why life should be protected by U.S. law, he said people should ask themselves the following: “Do you as an American believe, as an article of the American civic religion, that we hold these truths to be self evident: All men are created equal?” Because, he said, “We believe that everyone is endowed by God. And not any God, but the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob​—​that God.”

But Santorum pressed more than just social conservatism in Iowa; he proposed a distinctly populist economic agenda. He takes traditional Republican economic goals as a starting point​—​cutting taxes and reducing the size of government. But his plans also have some interesting wrinkles. When it comes to taxes, for instance, Santorum wants to collapse the code to two rates (10 percent and 28 percent) and limit individuals to just five deductions. His list is telling: children, charity, mortgage interest, health care, and retirement savings. It’s a scheme designed, first and foremost, to bolster middle-class families.

When it comes to corporate taxes, Santorum proposes slashing the general rate in half and eliminating taxes on manufacturing entirely. First, Santorum argues that service businesses, like restaurants, florists, or Walmart (to pick the three examples he often uses), can’t move to China. Factories can, so they need special protection.

Furthermore, Santorum argues, manufacturing is special. “In the knowledge-based economy we’re creating a lot of great products,” he says, “but we’re not making them in America. We’re creating​—​and then by creating .  .  . but manufacturing them somewhere else, wealth is accumulated. But it’s not distributed.” This distribution of wealth concerns Santorum because he sees manufacturing jobs as the key to economic mobility​—​and hence family formation​—​in the lower-middle and middle-middle classes. And intact, middle-class families are the key to economic growth and liberty. “You can’t have limited government without strong families,” he’s fond of saying. “You can’t have a successful economy without strong families.”

It’s an interesting bridge, from economic to moral issues, that Santorum constructs. It’s at once populist and values-based. Even when he’s talking about the tax code or economic policy, he finds a way to talk about family life. In Brentwood, New Hampshire, for instance, a voter asked him how he would stop members of Congress from insider trading. Santorum responded that we shouldn’t need a law to prevent legislators from profiting off of nonpublic information, because such behavior is obviously unethical. But because our representatives don’t act ethically and morally, he said, we will have to pass a law constraining them. Then we’ll have to hire people to enforce the law. As a result congressional offices will swell with these new hall monitors. The government will grow. And the entire operation will cost Americans money. 

Then Santorum bridged: “People say, ‘All we need to care about is cutting taxes and cutting government and everything will be fine.’ But if people don’t live good, decent, moral lives, government is going to get bigger. And that’s why I say families and faith are important parts of the foundation of economic limited government.”

It was an elegant formulation; and the audience loved it.

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