Compassionate conservatism’s comeback?
In the wake of Rick Santorum’s virtual tie with Mitt Romney for first place in the Iowa caucus, a once-common term — “compassionate conservatism”– has re-entered the political lexicon. Political blogs across the spectrum, religious publications and prominent newspaper columnists are debating whether Santorum is the new standard-bearer of this label. The discussion actually says more about the state of conservatism than it does about the former senator from Pennsylvania.
The argument for Santorum’s compassionate conservatism is that he talks about poverty as a moral issue on the campaign trail and his record as a lawmaker, at least on a few issues, jibes more with social justice Christianity than with Tea Party radicalism. Santorum stood up for lifesaving international aid at a GOP debate while others scored cheap political points by demonizing it. As a senator he strongly supported the PEPFAR program to combat AIDS in Africa and stood up for solutions that help the poor, such as debt relief and community health centers. These stances are commendable.
But when deciding whether a politician deserves to be called a compassionate conservative, we should examine how consistently he defends the most vulnerable and those at the margins.
Santorum’s compassion is very selective. He advocates breaking up immigrant families and opposes the DREAM Act. He calls climate change a liberal hoax. He supports torturing detainees in US custody. He endorsed Representative Paul Ryan’s immoral federal budget plan and says poor Americans should suffer more. And few politicians exhibit greater hostility toward gay and lesbian Americans.
Santorum also uses moral arguments to defend economic policies that harm struggling Americans. His unwavering defense of deregulating big business and huge tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy is standard fare for the GOP, but when it comes to helping poor Americans, he argues that protections for the unemployed and the working poor create dependency rather than help people get back on their feet. When job seekers outnumber jobs 4-to-1 and 49 million Americans are trapped in poverty, this sort of rhetoric is dangerous, misleading and insulting.
It’s a sad commentary on our nation’s politics when a record as uneven and troubling as Santorum’s enables him to seize the mantle of compassionate conservatism. A real compassionate conservative movement would be a welcome change from today’s radicalized GOP and a valuable contribution to addressing poverty and inequality. But this ain’t it.