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If Perry and Romney are RINOs, why isn’t Santorum?

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After a string of entertaining Republican primary debates, yesterday’s Google/Fox deal was brutal. I learned nothing new about the candidates, nothing new about their positions, and even the prefabricated pugilism was pretty pathetic. I found myself cringing more than usual, and for the third time I found the unelectable Newt Gingrich the most compelling thing going on in these debates.

Not good.

By now it is surely dawning on many conservatives that Rick Perry is only occasionally coherent -- and when he is they don’t exactly like what he has to say. I’d say Perry is starting to remind me more of George Bush, but W. was a far superior debater. Perry’s attacks on Mitt Romney (target-rich) were clumsy and his emotional appeal on the issue of welfare for illegal immigrant college students (you've gotta have heart) was picked apart. Judging from his primary performances, Perry is unable to offer any depth of knowledge on policy -- or at least anything more specific than saying “Texas." Sure, he might get better, but his performance should worry Republicans.

So Mitt Romney might be the candidate best positioned to beat Obama, and he might be the most polished in this field, but the base will never trust him for numerous solid reasons. Seeing Mitt so eagerly defend government coercion and social security doesn't help one bit.

So how about Rick Santorum? The Washington Examiner’s Byron York says that Rick Santorum won. Even though he might be my least favorite primary candidate, I think that’s right. He was aggressive and kept strong on his message.

But if Romney is RINO interloper, what is Santorum?

Santorum once said this:

This whole idea of personal autonomy, well I don’t think most conservatives hold that point of view. Some do. They have this idea that people should be left alone, be able to do whatever they want to do, government should keep our taxes down and keep our regulations low, that we shouldn’t get involved in the bedroom, we shouldn’t get involved in cultural issues. You know, people should do whatever they want. Well, that is not how traditional conservatives view the world and I think most conservatives understand that individuals can’t go it alone.

To begin with, the statement is riddled with strawmen and distortions. (Why does Santorum believe that getting government out of our lives means that we “go at it alone”? Maybe it means we go to our church, or our family, or our buddies or nowhere at all by choice.) Without getting too deeply into his anti-libertarianism, this kind of thinking gives the former Senator the ideologically flexibility to decry government interference when he dislikes it while and support the types of intrusions he finds morally acceptable.

Why is Santorum being treated as if he were a charter Tea Party member? When will someone ask him (and I might have missed this) why he backed fiscal liberal Arlen Specter over Pat Toomey in the 2004 Republican Pennsylvania primaries -- an election in which an endorsement might have actually mattered. And as Club for Growth points out, Santorum was always a strong fiscal conservative .... when election time was around the corner:

However, there is a troubling part of Santorum’s record on spending, which is found in the years sandwiched between these periods of fiscal restraint. His record is plagued by the big-spending habits that Republicans adopted during the Bush years of 2001-2006. Some of those high profile votes include his support for No Child Left Behind in 2001, which greatly expanded the federal government’s role in education. He supported the massive new Medicare drug entitlement in 2003 that now costs taxpayers over $60 billion a year and has almost $16 trillion in unfunded liabilities. He voted for the 2005 highway bill that included thousands of wasteful earmarks, including the Bridge to Nowhere. In fact, in a separate vote, Santorum had the audacity to vote to continue funding the Bridge to Nowhere rather than send the money to rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Has Santorum had to answer for all those votes? Seems to me he was a big supporter of the entire big government Republican agenda of the 2000s that helped bring about a Barack Obama victory. Doesn't that make him a RINO?

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Follow @davidharsanyi.

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