Ross Douthat writes about the decline of “the Catholic vision of the good society — more egalitarian than American conservatism and more moralistic than American liberalism.” Everything he says is true as far as I can tell, and yet I think there is plenty of room for a politics that is more socially conservative than Obama and more egalitarian than the Wall Street Journal Editorial Page.
One encouraging sign was the campaign of Rick Santorum. I’m not arguing from Santorum’s strengths but from his weaknesses. Santorum had little money, little organization (outside of Iowa), little support within the institutional Republican party and little message discipline when the spotlight was on. Santorum still won a plurality of the popular vote in about ten states with all his weaknesses and missteps. What Santorum had going for him was the reality of his pro-life convictions, his fairly articulate critique of government-run medicine and a pro-family economic agenda (even if it was deeply flawed and anachronistic.)
The Romney campaign stumbled into its “jobs creators who built that” economic message along with its dark side in Romney’s expressed contempt for the forty-seven percent. These Romney message choices were driven by short-sighted opportunism (responding to Obama’s Osawatomie speech in the first instance and flattering an audience of rich donors in the second), not destiny. A different Republican could have made different choices and Santorum’s campaign shows that there was a market for a more solidaristic message in the Republican primaries.
That doesn’t mean that Republicans should look to recreate the Santorum campaign without Santorum. They should look to create a more solidaristic politics with better ideas than the ones Santorum proposed. We shouldn’t be looking to tilt the tax code in order to favor manufacturing firms. We should be looking to move the tax code in a more pro-family, pro-work, and (yes WSJ) more investment-friendly direction. Republicans could be the party of the secure and affordable welfare state that protects the old while not crushing the young under taxation and for a health care system that makes catastrophic health insurance more affordable even as it encourages innovation in provision of routine care. Paul Ryan did some decent work on Medicare reform, but the Romney campaign, in its cynicism, chose to run a less issue driven campaign and hoped that bad economic times would put them over the top. Republicans should actually focus more on the abortion issue and seek to gain the initiative. Be clearly and forthrightly the party that is against late-term abortion on demand.
There is a hole in our politics where a center-right politics of limited government solidarity should be. That isn’t because of a lack of policy proposals or the lack of a (latent) public desire for such a center-right politics. This lack in our politics exists because of mistakes by key political elites who keep getting suckered by Obama’s statism into a radical-sounding rhetorical anti-statism that doesn’t even reflect Republican policy. Better options are available. We just need to stop charging furiously every time Obama waves his red flag and build our own positive message. We might find that a prudent and relevant Catholic-influenced Republican politics is more popular than the Republican politics of job creators + tax cuts for high earners + nothing.