Santorum and Gingrich in South Carolina: Are they really Reagan conservatives?

Grabbing at the mantle of Ronald Reagan, Santorum and Gingrich are tearing it to shreds. Photo: Associated Press

NATCHITOCHES, La., January 21, 2012—Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum are in a battle to be the last conservative standing. They are locked in a struggle to convince the voters that each is the best one to stand against Mitt Romney. They made their arguments in the strongest terms they have yet during Thursday’s debate in Charleston.

Santorum’s strongest attack on Romney focused on health care. He argued that Romney can’t be depended on to fight for the repeal of PPACA (“Obamacare”) given his own Massachusetts health care insurance reform law (“Romneycare”), which supposedly served as the inspiration for Obamacare. Romney’s was a liberal program that included an individual mandate, and Santorum wasn’t willing to accept the argument that the people of Massachusetts approved of it. A true conservative could never father a liberal program.

Opposition to Romney on the basis of Romneycare ignores or dismisses two key differences between Romneycare and Obamacare: The people of Massachusetts wanted Romneycare, and they didn’t impose it on anyone else.

A fundamental principle of Reagan conservatism (the sort that Santorum and Gingrich clutch at like medieval clerics fighting over a holy relic) is a small federal government that leaves people and the states alone to work out problems in their own ways. It wasn’t Reagan’s belief that conservative ideas and principles should be shoved down people’s throats, but that liberal principles should not be. He wasn’t opposed to you giving all your money to liberal causes; he wanted you to be free to give it if you wanted to, and not give it if you didn’t.

Santorum is as far from Ronald Reagan as you can get and still call yourself “conservative.” Reagan would have been delighted for the people of Massachusetts to have whichever sort of medical insurance and health care provision they liked, as long as that didn’t obligate the people of Idaho to have the same programs. Santorum, on the other hand, is appalled that liberal Massachusetts gets to be liberal Massachusetts. His idea of conservatism is forcing Massachusetts to be Idaho.

Had Romney behaved as Santorum would like, it would have been like the reddest red state’s governor (that might at one point have been Utah’s Jon Huntsman) insisting that his state choose programs developed by the sociology faculty of NYU. That would rightly cause outrage among conservatives.

Obamacare is an attempt to impose one program on all 50 states, a program that is vigorously opposed by most people in many of those states. It’s the antithesis of conservatism, and it wouldn’t matter whether the program itself carried the Reagan-Hayek seal of approval. This is rightly a states’ issue, and the liberal nature of Obamacare isn’t individual mandates, but the fact that it sweeps all the power over this issue out of the states and into Washington.

Romneycare was right for Massachusetts, and within the parameters set by the wants and needs of Massachusetts, it is a well-crafted law. Santorum should applaud that fact, not denigrate it.

Gingrich’s biggest salvo against Romney was on abortion. Gingrich, whose dedication to moral principles is centered on imposing them on everyone else, but in the finest Washington style exempting himself, found Romney’s stand on life unconvincing. But, like Santorum, Gingrich was operating from a position at odds with Reagan conservatism.

Reagan, like Santorum and Gingrich, talked a tough pro-life game. Like Romney, he was pragmatic about it. He didn’t make abortion a litmus test of his judicial nominees, and he didn’t hold government hostage to his views on the subject.

Conservative opposition to Roe v. Wade wasn’t originally about abortion per se. That is, conservatives never argued that abortion should be banned across the 50 states. They fought to allow the states to have their own laws. Supreme Court jurisprudence on social issues was anathema to them because it imposed one set of views across the country.

Gingrich and Santorum aren’t interested in allowing people of the various states to debate contraception, abortion, cloning and stem-cell research, nor are they interested simply in keeping federal money from funding these things. Their interest is imposing their views across the board, and again they use that as a measure of conservatism. But it is not. Conservatism isn’t about particular positions on particular issues, but on how the issues are debated and how the laws are made.

Gingrich, Santorum, and their equally ideologically devout liberal counterparts want government power to impose their views on the rest of the country. They know what’s right, they don’t trust states like Massachusetts (or Utah) to do what’s right, and so they want federal power to make sure we all do what’s right.

Romney acted in Massachusetts to stop the creation of embryos for research and to maintain some reasonable restrictions on abortion. In Massachusetts, reasonable restrictions are all that anyone could hope for. Yet Gingrich is outraged that Romney didn’t find a way to impose on the people of that state judges who would get the Gingrich-Santorum seal of approval. He’s outraged that Romney didn’t act like the Governor of Alabama and then like a liberal democrat, looking for judges to make laws that the legislature wouldn’t make.

Neither Gingrich nor Santorum is a serious conservative, certainly not a Reagan conservative. They’re both pious, laundry-list conservatives, paying homage to small-government conservatism with their lips while trying to gut it.

Whichever of the two is the last pious conservative standing, neither will deliver the conservatism that has always been a part of American aspirations. They’re two TV evangelists arguing over the dead letter of the law, a law they neither love nor understand. If that’s the conservatism the GOP is looking for, the party is a whited sepulcher, and if either of them wins the nomination, GOP conservatism is a dead letter.

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James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La., where he went to take a break from working in Moscow and Washington. But he fell in love with the town and with the professor of Romance languages, so there he stayed. Now he teaches, annoys his children, and makes jalapeno lemonade. He’s starting to understand why some people don’t like Rick Santorum. He tweets, hangs out on Facebook, and has a blog he totally neglects at pichtblog.blogspot.com.

 


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Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years working in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He returned to Ukraine recently to teach principles of constitutional law and criminal procedure at several Ukrainian law schools for a USAID legal development project. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.

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