Rick Santorum Goes Populist at CPAC: 'Do We Really Accept There Are Classes in America?'

NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland–"Do we really accept the fact that there are classes in America?" Rick Santorum brought an offbeat message of economic equality to the stage of CPAC Friday, foregoing much of the social-conservative rhetoric that made him famous for a populist approach to engaging America's underemployed lower classes.

Santorum began his speech with an approach familiar to many others on the stage, challenging the idea that Republicans have to win by losing "those currently unfashionable stances on culture and limited government issues." "I'm not out here fighting just to elect Republican candidates to win – I'm here to see America win," the 2012 presidential runner-up told the audience to applause.

Santorum did not dwell too much on social issues, though he did emphasize the importance of the "true, beautiful institution of marriage" to the economy. He did not define what he thought that "true" meaning was, but instead called for valuing the marriage contract as a function of the economy. And the economy was center stage today, as Santorum railed against economic inequality.

He noted that he focused as a candidate on "working Americans," not the "middle class." He urged the audience not to adopt "a class-envy, leftist language that divides Americans against themselves," and instead actively recruit America's poor to the Republican side. In order to do that, Santorum argued, Republicans had to abandon talk of "cut[ting] taxes for higher class people" because it "doesn't connect emotionally." Republicans need to address the problems related to "you, not the employer who might hire you" and engage those who "are most vulnerable."

Instead of the wealthy, Santorum suggested, Republicans should talk about "tax cuts, but for manufacturing." The line received tepid applause.

The classic Santorum lines were delivered with a finesse that almost hid their social-conservative background. "The first economy is the home, and when the home breaks down, the economy breaks down," he told the crowd, calling for Republicans to stand "with that underemployed person working two jobs, stand with the unemployed, stand with the single mom, stand with the people who are fearful because fear is powerful and overcoming fear is what makes America the greatest country in the world."

Santorum concluded by praising Pope Francis, calling for Republicans to "talk about the Good News for a hurting world," and praise more than condemn, be for things rather than against them.

The speech was a surprising one. It served to distinguish Santorum from the rest of the amorphous pack of Republicans who may or may not resurface in 2016. Santorum might not be holding public office right now or showing up strongly in polls, but he remains the runner-up to Mitt Romney in 2012, and that position always carries weight in the Republican Party. He is also offering voters something no Republican is offering: a sensibility for the proletariat, a soft spot for the poor, and a desire to engage in the economic debate that other Republicans deem "class warfare." Santorum might be calling for the abandonment of a "leftist" language, but he is speaking Democrat in economics, and doing so in a way that makes him unique in the field. 

He also seems to have learned his lesson about social issues, using language that could even be mistaken for pro-gay marriage: after all, if marriage is a true, beautiful, and necessary institution, every American should be able and encouraged to participate in it – if only for the improvement of the economy. His audience knows enough about Santorum not to misinterpret his statements, but they were nonetheless sufficiently inclusive to make that interpretation possible – a prodigious leap in ambiguity for the former Pennsylvania senator.

Watch Santorum speak live at CPAC below:


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