Santorum and the Tea Party crackup

By Michelle Goldberg
January 6, 2012

By Michelle Goldberg

The views expressed are her own.


It’s easy to read too much into Rick Santorum’s stunning finish in the Iowa caucuses after months of dismal poll numbers. In some ways he won by default, emerging as the last conservative candidate standing because no one took him seriously enough to attack him. Nevertheless, by virtually tying with Mitt Romney, he has become the leading conservative alternative in the race. And that should put to rest the exhausted conventional wisdom that the American right is primarily motivated by a desire for small government. Because Rick Santorum sure isn’t.

Since the Tea Party burst onto the political scene in 2009, we have heard over and over again that the revolt against president Obama was driven by anxiety about government expansion. Because conservatives told pollsters they were most concerned about fiscal issues, conventional wisdom hyped the belief that the culture wars were passé. In Politico, for example, Ben Smith wrote that the Tea Party had “banished the social issues that are the focus of many evangelical Christians to the background.”

Certainly, Tea Party voters wanted to shrink government spending and lower taxes. That’s perfectly in line with the ideology of the religious right, which holds that families and churches should provide the social safety net. According to Ralph Reed, the Christian Coalition’s main legislative goals in 1994 and 1995 were tax cuts for middle-class families with children and balancing the budget. And fifteen years later, polls showed that the Tea Party was largely the old Christian right in a new guise. A September Public Religion Research Institute survey found that three quarters of Tea Partiers describe themselves as Christian conservatives, while only a quarter identify as libertarians. The Tea Party-inspired House prioritized anti-abortion legislation even when it meant raising taxes, championing a bill that would have ended current tax breaks for individuals and small businesses buying health care plans that cover abortion, as the vast majority of plans now do. Nevertheless, the notion of the Tea Party as a libertarian force endured.

Santorum’s emergence as the anti-Romney, though, should make it impossible to ignore the fact that many on the right, including large numbers of self-described Tea Partiers, want more government control of our lives, not less. According to a CNN entrance poll, Santorum won a plurality of Iowa Tea Party sympathizers—64 percent of voters overall—with 29 percent, followed by 19 percent each for Romney and Ron Paul. He’s getting at least some Tea Party support in New Hampshire, winning the endorsement of Jerry DeLemus, chairman of the Granite State Patriots Liberty PAC. This despite the fact that Santorum has often disparaged limited government. In 2005, for example, he told NPR that conservatives who have taken a “Goldwaterish libertarian point of view when it comes to the interaction of government in people’s lives” have done so “to the determent of the country.”

It’s not just that Santorum opposes abortion even in cases of rape, incest, or threats to the mother’s health. He also opposes birth control, and wants to use the presidency to fight it. “One of the things I will talk about, that no president has talked about before, is I think the dangers of contraception in this country,” he said last year in a video interview with the conservative blog Caffeinated Thoughts. “It’s not okay. It’s a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.” His ideas for how government can limit choice don’t stop there. In his 2005 book “It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good,” he proposes making divorce more difficult to obtain, with mandatory counseling and waiting periods for couples with children under 18. It’s evident that philosophically, he’s deeply anti-individualist, believing that it’s the job of government to enforce morality.

His differences with the Tea Party’s ostensible ideals extend beyond social issues. Many in the movement excoriate Obama’s green jobs initiative as government meddling in the private sector, but Santorum’s plans to revive industrial production represent a similar, if less environmentally friendly, attempt to shape the economy from above. The Tea Party claims to be outraged by the influence of Washington lobbyists and the expansion of crony capitalism. Yet Santorum was deeply involved in the K Street Project, which the New Yorker’s John Cassidy described as “an audacious attempt by Republican leaders on Capitol Hill, including Tom DeLay and Senator Rick Santorum, of Pennsylvania, to turn the busy thoroughfare where many corporate influence peddlers have their offices into an affiliate of the Republican Party.” In 2006, the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington named him one of the country’s three most corrupt Senators.

In other words, he represents much of what the Tea Party purports to oppose, and if he continues to surge, it could shatter the movement. If that happens, some Tea Partiers will scramble for yet another alternative. The majority will probably return from whence they came, to the old-fashioned religious right, which makes no pretense of opposing government intrusion into private life or government grants to religious groups.

Those that take the Tea Party’s anti-government rhetoric seriously will remain with Ron Paul, in many ways Santorum’s opposite. The difference between them isn’t really about social issues: Paul, after all, also wants to ban abortion, and supports the rights of states to ban gay marriage and impose prayer in schools. But he does believe that the growth of federal government power is a problem whether Republicans or Democrats hold the presidency. Santorum, by contrast, just wants more power for people who agree with him.

As the branches of the movement fight amongst themselves, Mitt Romney, a candidate disliked by much of the conservative base, will almost certainly become the nominee. In 2010, Tea Partiers seemed set to have a major impact on presidential election. Instead, not only are they unhappy with the likely GOP standard-bearer – they can’t even unite behind someone who might give him a credible challenge. The primary season has revealed that the movement is simply the old conservative coalition, a combination of grassroots social conservatives with smaller numbers of anti-tax activists. When the tensions between those groups become too great, it dissolves. What’s left is weaker than the sum of its parts.

PHOTO: Republican presidential candidate and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum (R) greets voters at a campaign stop in Keene, New Hampshire, January 6, 2012. The New Hampshire Republican presidential primary election is on January 10.   REUTERS/Mike Segar

13 comments

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oh, goody…another ‘end of the TEA Party column’…the Whackadoodle Left has been shoveling this particular load of fertilizer every 5-10 days for the past several years, but it never fails to amuse

Posted by spike59 | Report as abusive

I was in the car earlier this week (Tuesday or Wednesday) and I tuned into Limbaugh just in time to hear him rant and rave that conservatives ARE for big government. They are just not for the kind of big government that Democrats are for.

Limbaugh was saying this to defend Rick Santorum, who voted for the first new entitlement program since LBJ (Medicare Part D), the largest federal intrusion into the classroom in history (the failed No Child Left Behind), the largest pork barrel infrastructure bill in history (featuring the notorious bridge to nowhere), numerous other pork-barrel earmarks, and two ill-conceived misadventures in the Middle East.

How is ANY of this “conservative”???

This is why I stopped calling myself a “conservative” long ago.

Posted by ericbl | Report as abusive

When the life of a human being is threatened, government needs to intervene, even if government should not be in the business of dictating to us what kinds of light bulbs we may be permitted to purchase. Or is Ms. Goldberg “pro-choice” on the murder of children who have left their mothers’ wombs as well as those who are yet in utero? Medically the unborn baby is still unquestionably a human being. The DNA is not that of a dog. Thus, every time a pregnant woman enters a “Planned Parenthood” clinic, a human life is in jeopardy. To say that saving lives represents a function of “big government” is to trivialize the issue.

Posted by JohnMyers | Report as abusive

the truth is not only santorum is for big government but so is the GOP. they just want their big government . the tea party is nothing more than a movement that started because we had elected a democratic president. and he was black. now the movement is fading and will be irrelevent soon as paole are mad about the way they caused all the distress all year long and created all those crises. rick santorum will never be anything again. he lost his election in pennsylvania by 18 points. right now he’s the flavor of the month. when vetted he will sink.

Posted by donincardona | Report as abusive

The US right wants both, the Culture Wars and a small government. Why is this so difficult to understand?

Posted by borisjimbo | Report as abusive

We’ve always had and will probably always have culture wars but rarely, if ever, small government. Reading tea party leaves? “Don’t shoot the messenger” is what I hear when the non-party party is attacked as if it was a “movement”. Try being a straight white settled conservative ex-Republican-democrat. I’m not too impressed with any party even using the word “party”. The fn party should be over and work begun. Go Paul! Maybe not the messenger but at least the damn message…E NUFF war, EEE NUF laws, sure plenty of Uncle Sugar to go around IF we tried to just stop what leaks out from un/under-reported taxes. “They” say in ’06 (if collected)it would have been sufficient to balance the year’s budget. But since the word “budget” is also on the list of worthless conjoined letters of the current language, forget that as a fix-all now or ever, but never go back to spending without raising revenue like a dog to it’s vomit. you pukes make me sick and come re-election time you better build more credit or cash out like Santorum and try to catch the tail of the health care beast cirlcling our pile of $.
Abortion should be legal and unknown.
Guns kill people. Just like they’re supposed to when you step across the line and I hear my granddaughter cry.
Taxes pay for things I can’t, won’t, maybe don’t even “believe” in. But I have one vote Mr. Pledge of conservatism. Just like you. And when “you” decide to tip government towards minority rule through antiquated procedures…I boo. Whether you are an ass like me or big-eared like the rest of my Lincoln loving family.

Posted by pHenry | Report as abusive

It’s time and past time for rational voters to become political activists and speaking out their views, even demands, to our political processes. Supposedly we are the ‘tie breakers in presidential elections; why don’t act as tie breakers in the gridlocked legislative processes? It seems to me that ‘we’ are the only unorganized Interest group pressuring legislators and POTUS; talibangelicals want theocracy not democracy; Neocons want wars and corporate profits, AKA fascism, progressives want individual liberties for all at government expense, however I’m unsure what other ‘Independents’ want. I know what I want, a functional government delivering ‘good Public Policy, benefiting a majority of Americans, derived from actual rational debate and a compromise between opposing philosophical beliefs. I want honest legislators and that requires an independent body with investigative, subpoena and civil enforcement powers over sitting legislators. I want as much special interest group money as possible removed from our political processes and that requires actual oversight, actual interest group member transparency of donors and removing all tax breaks/loopholes or deductions by such groups used to influence elections; that includes any religious group currently classified as a 501-c (3 or 4). I want our Constitution, as amended, treated as a whole document, including a the Declaration of Independence considered as legal Intent and such Constitutionally guaranteed civil rights, now abrogated, be The Law of the Land and such state and federal laws currently restricting those ‘rights’ be nullified and state or federal bodies be dismantled or assigned another enforcement role benefiting a majority a majority of American citizens. I want term limits for SCOTUS judges and they are subject to the same ethical and financial oversight as legislators. I want the Electoral College dismantled and federal elections subject to the popular vote and any state law constraining the right of US citizens be nullified. I want all citizens treated as equally treated as any citizen and laws currently in force restricting such treatment be nullified. I want our progressive tax code be reformed, simplified, written in citizen speak, and tax loopholes subsidizing or giving preference to corporate entities be removed and tax enforcement activities be prioritized using the 90-10 rule, i.e., that 90% of tax evasion is done by 10% of individuals and corporations with the most to gain by tax avoidance or cheating. I want our legal system reformed and simplified with a mandate to treat all citizens equal under ‘The Rule of Law’ benefiting the majority of American citizens and with Corporate CEOs and governing board members be treated as co-defendants in any illegal acts committed or caused by such corporate entities and subject to the same penalties as any citizen convicted under the same law. That what I want however I don’t pretend to know what other cognitive, rational independent voters want; probably many of mine.
IMHO, independents need an active voice and presence in our national political processes otherwise ‘we’ risk more of the same, more corporate ownership, more legislator venality , more individual ‘civil rights’ taken away, more ideological Special Interest groups pouring millions of secretive dollar$ into elections for increasing their power and profits.

Posted by JBltn | Report as abusive

You are basically right. These people are the old right wing.

There was a big change in the right when Reagan came in. They were no longer fiscal conservatives, they thought they could reduce taxes and balance the budget with the resulting boost to growth. This continues up to and including George W. It is demonstrably false, but Tea Partiers won’t accept it.

These guys only want to cut spending on other people. They think medicare is just fine, but are moresceptical about medicaid. They want tax breaks for married couples, but less for welfare.

They do not challenge the balooning pentagon budget.

Posted by Dafydd | Report as abusive

“When the life of a human being is threatened, government needs to intervene, even if government should not be in the business of dictating to us what kinds of light bulbs we may be permitted to purchase.”

Seriously? I don’t see conservatives concerned about anybody’s life but their own. Complete hypocrisy when you can be against all forms of contraception and conveniently ignore the “person” after they are born and need family, food and shelter.

Posted by Narvid | Report as abusive

“When the life of a human being is threatened, government needs to intervene…”

So you get to pick and choose the morals for everyone? Isn’t that a theocracy? What if a Muslim candidate wanted to choose the religious laws that our secular laws should adhere to? Think there would be much outcry? What if I think that the government should intervene and keep you from going to church since it is a cult with no basis in fact and is a ponzi con scheme? After all the government would just be saving you from your own weak willed existence.

Or how about we keep the government out of people’s private lives and decisions so long as those decisions don’t directly harm others?

Posted by NickinMO | Report as abusive

I’d be more worried about the Tea Party if it weren’t really the rebranded hard right of the GOP thanks to Dick Armey and Karl Rove.

Posted by borisjimbo | Report as abusive

The fascist GOP will say anything to anybody to win control. Period. They have no morals and are the farthest thing from Christianity. Disgusting.

Posted by BakoD | Report as abusive

“What’s left is weaker than the sum of its parts”

Yes, but less shaky ground and a healthier foundation to restart. Always a trade-off i’m afraid…

Posted by Qeds | Report as abusive