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.