Why Rick Santorum Needs Big Government

His ideas may rouse conservatives--but not necessarily make them better off.

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Among the people surprised by Rick Santorum's success in the presidential campaign is Rick Santorum. The former senator has clearly struck a nerve among conservative voters that Santorum himself may not even fully understand.

Santorum's early focus on moral and social issues has evolved into a broader rant about bossy government, curtailed freedoms and fading opportunity. On the stump, Santorum's biggest applause lines tend to come when he bashes President Obama's healthcare reform law, complains about too much regulation, and argues for more personal responsibility and less government caretaking. "I believe in people having the opportunity to take care of themselves," he often tells voters.

His pitch is clearly working. Though running on fumes compared to Mitt Romney's corporatized machine, Santorum has now won nine nominating contests and shocked the former Massachusetts governor by nearly knocking him off in Ohio, a key battleground state. Six months ago, practically nobody guessed that Santorum would be prolonging, and perhaps derailing, the coronation of the presumed GOP nominee.

Santorum is channeling voter angst about falling living standards and national decline. Daniel Henninger of the Wall Street Journal argues that Santorum's frequent use of the word "freedom" is a catch-all code word for everything that bothers conservatives, especially a government that seems too big and imposing, and ineffective besides. The solution to this assault on freedom, of course, is to roll back regulations, kill Obamacare and shrink government's role in everyday life.

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Fair enough. But that leaves a vital question unanswered: After getting government out of our lives, then what?

Conservatives rosily assume that prosperity is being strangled by an overgrown federal bureaucracy and that pruning back government will allow businesses and their workers to flourish once again. Many moderates and centrists agree with conservatives that the U.S. government has grown unsustainably large and needs to shrink. But it is folly to think that a smaller government alone will somehow reinvigorate the U.S. economy.

The two biggest forces transforming the economy, driving jobs overseas and pushing down wages are globalization and the digital revolution. Shrinking the size of government won't do anything to reverse those trends. Santorum talks about taking steps to return American manufacturing to its glory days, but the kind of targeted stimulus that would require actually runs counter to his broader idea of smaller, laissez-faire government.

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Repealing Obamacare is another red herring. The Affordable Care Act has many flaws and the jury is still out on whether it will do more good than harm. But health reform passed in 2010 because of a huge and legitimate problem: Far too many Americans lack health insurance and access to basic medical care. Repealing Obamacare would leave that problem even worse than it was when Obama took office, because high unemployment and corporate cost-cutting have increased the number of Americans without health insurance to about 50 million, four million more than in 2008.

So let's say Santorum got his way and was somehow able to repeal Obamacare. Then what? There's no evidence the free market will provide a solution to the crisis of the uninsured. Would we simply continue to make do with 50 million uninsured Americans? Or would conservatives, who have long opposed any kind of government solution to inadequate healthcare, suddenly come up with a better plan than Obama's? (By the way, these are good questions for Mitt Romney, too.)

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Obamacare will be a key fault line in the general election in the fall, because it has become a proxy for public dyspepsia in general. In a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 38 percent of respondents who are opposed to Obamacare said it's because of negative feelings toward Washington in general, and worries about the overall direction of the country. Only 27 percent of people who opposed the law said it's purely because of what's in the law itself. So a lot of people are taking out their frustrations on a piece of legislation that they don't know much about, and which hasn't actually affected them yet.

Even if Obamacare were to benefit many of its detractors, they might still complain. That's how it works with Medicare and Social Security, two programs that are as popular as ever, even though attitudes toward government have soured significantly. When asked their views of government spending, many Americans, it seems, exempt these programs for retirees from consideration.

The irony of Santorum's policies is that actually enacting them might make many of his core supporters worse off. Santorum enjoys strong support among blue-collar workers and lower-income Americans, for example, which are groups that stand to benefit from nanny-state programs like federal extensions of unemployment insurance--and yes, Obamacare, once it goes into effect in 2014.

For Santorum, the best government may be a big, unwieldy one that stays exactly as it is, because it gives him a bogeyman to campaign against. If he were ever to "free" people from the oppressive yoke of government, it might feel good for a while. But if that's all he did, before long, many people would wonder why all of the old problems are still there.

Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback to Success, to be published in May. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman