Life of the Party

What Kind of Conservatives Do Republicans Want to Be?

I love watching Republicans engage in class warfare. They condemn it as a sin when Democrats come within a hundred miles of even mentioning the sharp and growing class inequalities in the United States. But when conservatives play the class card, they see doing so as a high ethical calling involving the defense of good and moral folk against the depredations of a liberal elite.

Blatant hypocrisy is instructive.

Rick Santorum gave by far the best speech Tuesday night after his boffo performance in the Iowa caucuses. Among the Republicans, he along with Jon Huntsman -- and, yes, Ron Paul who is really a libertarian -- knows who he is and why he's running. Santorum has a philosophy (and a theology) that holds his views together. It's a retro philosophy but no less interesting for that. So comparatively speaking, he comes by his class warfare honestly, even if he panders shamelessly on guns and gays and talks about the straight-laced President Obama as if he embodied the moral sensibilities of Woodstock and Gomorrah.

If the Republicans want to have a genuinely searching debate about the future of their party, they'd send Santorum and Huntsman off for the long fight. Huntsman is a forceful economic conservative, but also resolutely modern. He's a defender of science, a hard-eyed realist on foreign affairs who rejects Santorum's neoconservative moralism, and he speaks the policy language of an upper-middle class that likes its politics to focus on deficits and our future competition with China.

Santorum is a Catholic of a certain kind, and it's the most important thing about him. He's on one side of a long-standing debate in the church about how to build a decent society. Social-justice Catholics (and I'm one of those) represent an older American tradition. We agree with more conservative Catholics on the family as an essential social building block, but see capitalism as in need of regulation and correction if it is to serve the common good, and protect the family itself. Many of us -- and here we do depart from the church's official teaching -- see gay marriage not as undermining fidelity and commitment but as encouraging them.

By contrast, Santorum is what Republican strategist Steve Wagner years ago called a "social renewal" Catholic. These Catholics see opposition to abortion as a foundational matter and opposition to gay marriage as essential to "protecting" the family. They view the federal government less as a guarantor of social fairness than as "inflicting harm on the nation's moral character," as Wagner has put it.

Huntsman's core vote, such as it is right now, comes from less intensely religious economic rationalists who do not perceive culture wars as breaking out all over. Santorum reflects the sensibility of the Catholic and evangelical working-class voters whose ballots Republicans have long taken for granted.

Santorum's surge was easy to see coming. He was the last staunch conservative standing, unscathed by foolish mistakes or by Mitt Romney's highly efficient and unaccountable manufacturing operation whose product is attack ads. (Bain Capital would have picked it as a winner.) Though Santorum is a Catholic, evangelicals knew he was one of them in spirit, the new ecumenism being more political than theological.

Romney needs to win decisively in New Hampshire. His poll lead is massive, his organization is formidable, and the Republican leaders he has with him here are the sort you want on your side in a fight. But Huntsman is drawing good crowds, and a working-class conservative base in places such as Berlin, Laconia and Manchester that warmed to Pat Buchanan in 1992 and 1996 will find Santorum attractive, even if Buchanan and Santorum are continents apart on foreign policy.

There's also this: Romney's super-PAC ads in Iowa created a fierce enemy in Newt Gingrich. The proud former speaker of the House seems determined, for now at least, to do as much damage as he can to the candidate he contemptuously calls "timid."

This race has come down to the highly disciplined and professional Romney who will say and do what it takes to win, against Santorum and Huntsman who have honest-to-goodness visions of what Republicanism needs to be. Paul will continue to preach Austrian economics (his "We're all Austrians now" was Tuesday's most remarkable sound bite), and Gingrich will continue to growl. The pro usually wins these things, but the traditionalist-modernist clash has a lot more to do with the future of conservatism. 

(c) 2012, Washington Post Writers Group

Photo: Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock

About the Author

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).



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It seems that there is disagreement among Catholics not only on the issues of class and family, but also on the issue of the environment. In the republican debate at St. Anselm College, Senator Santorum mentioned that he had worked to make global warming a non-issue. It appears that Santorum does not believe in the science behind climate change, and is therefore at odds with a majority of scientists around the world as well as with Pope Benedict XVI, who recently encouraged progress for mitigating climate change at the international talks in Durban, South Africa.

PS. I am wondering how Senator Santorum reconciles his faith and reason considering his position is at odds with that of the Catholic Church and with the majority of scientists around the world?

Dear Matthew,

Global warming is not a fundamental belief of the Catholic Church and Pope Benedict has no special insight into its validity.  Also, science is not a field where truth is determined by the majority.  Science is a process of theory, experiment, revision.  Since it is impossible to conduct an experiment on global climate, its difficult to even call it science.

Best analysis of the current state of the Republican party that I have seen in any media.


Mr. Lafranchi --

it is impossible to do experiments with the heavenly bodies.  Do you deny the term "science" to astronomy?  What about geology?

No, science is not determined by a majority.  However, when the vast majority of Nobel Prize winners, basing their judgments on evidence and the work of other trustworthy scientists, agree that the human actions are a significant cause of global warming, you ignore the Nobels at your peril.  There is such a thing as authoritative opinion. 

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