What to Make of Santorum's Hat Trick and the Return of the Social Issues

Fear the sweater vest!

So much for Governor Mitch Daniels’ “truce” on social issues. Rick Santorum refused to raise the white flag on his principles and charged ahead. Tonight he celebrates a trifecta victory in Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado, all but shattering the myth of Romney’s inevitable cruise to victory in the presidential primary.

I’ll admit it. I didn’t see it coming. To be sure, this victory comes with caveats, as I wrote here. Santorum picked up only five delegates tonight and has 22 delegates to Romney’s 106, but it’s a move in the right direction. (The delegate count is here.)

But Santorum understands something that few of the other candidates can put into words: that the power to mandate is the power to compel and compulsion must be grounded on something higher than the mere will of the sovereign. This is a very effective argument against Barack Obama, but it it also a very effective one against Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, who also supported the Wall Street bailouts, cap and trade (taxing breathing) and of course, the individual mandate in health insurance. Both Gingrich and Romney are essentially progressives in their view that there is nothing government mustn’t do.

Santorum is totally correct when he says that government big enough to give you everything is big enough to take everything away or to force you to accept their “gifts” on their terms. We got a vision of what an Obamacare regime will look like this week when the Obama administration forced Catholic universities, hospitals and other church-affiliated employers to implement a new policy that requires health insurers to offer birth control coverage. For Catholics and many Americans who rightly argue that life begins at conception, forcing their institutions to provide the morning after-pill is tantamount to forcing them to countenance abortion.

The truth has always been that the left were the aggressors in the culture wars and this week they dug their trenches and prepared their assault on three key issues: homosexuals, the murder of the unborn, and compulsory subsidizing of birth control. Each of these issues is tied to the freedom of conscience and each of these issues is a battleground that the left has chosen. Suddenly the pushy Catholic, as the left would describe Santorum, doesn’t seem so pushy when the Catholics get pushed around. So much for if you like your health plan you can keep it. The fine print was apparently: you can only keep your health plan if we like it. Oh, and if you are a charity that doesn’t want to fund our left-wing causes, we will hack your websites, destroy your reputation, and threaten your employees.

Santorum knows all of this. Like Gingrich, he gets that we are in the fight of our lifetimes against an adversary that wants to wipe out our way of life. Romney doesn’t understand this impulse, alas, for all his bromides about America.

When Santorum speaks of the liberty of the Constitution, Santorum knows what the Ron Paul fans do not: that liberty is not license, but the right to live a good, virtuous life. Which is what Santorum, in contradistinction to Newt’s personal life and Mitt’s business and political life is exactly what Rick has led. What Gingrich and Santorum reveal is that Romney cannot win in the South and Midwest.

Santorum would be right to return to these wells again. Liberty is about more than choice, it is about choosing the good and sticking to it, even if you might lose an election. Santorum knows all about this and fought the good fight in 2006, only to lose to Bob Casey (an allegedly pro-life Catholic Democrat) by 17 points in a bad year for Republicans. Let’s not forget that Romney lost his U.S. Senate bid to Ted Kennedy by 17 pointsin a terrific Republican year in 1994 by essentially rejecting Reaganism. Pennsylvania is a moderately blue state; Massachusetts a blue state, but only one candidate compromised his principles.

It’s that argument over principles where Santorum is most strong. Here’s to hoping he dusts it off again in going after the mandates that RomneyCare put on Massachusetts residents. As a then-teetotaler and one-time resident of Massachusetts, I always found it somewhat odd that Mitt Romney, a practicing Mormon, was forcing insurers, underwriters and businesses in Massachusetts to cover the costs of alcohol rehabilitation for their employees.

It would be bad if that were the only mandate, but as of late 2011 there were some 42 other mandates, including clinical trials, hospice care, hormone replacement therapy, diabetes, and, yes, contraceptive services. Only eight were added since Romney left office and of those eight, three governed things that are a lot harder to assail against than alcoholism. Who, after all, wants to be against mandates for prosthetic devices (for the cripples), childhood vaccination (for the kids), and early intervention (for everyone who wishes he had caught the disease before he was felled by it)? This is the central problem of mandates. Everyone wants to mandate something and thanks to public choice economics, the benefits of getting a mandate approved are a lot more concentrated than the benefits of resisting all mandates. Think of it as medical earmarking.

Returning to tonight, with his sweep of the caucuses, Santorum is starting to look an awful lot like the candidate (Barack Obama) who won the caucuses, only to go toe-to-toe with a well-funded machine (Hilary Clinton).

If history is our guide, Mitt Romney is looking an awful lot like Hilary Clinton and Rick Santorum is looking an awful lot like Barack Obama. Now it is on to Arizona and Michigan. Romney is ahead in both states, but will his lead hold after Santorum’s major victory tonight? And will Santorum survive the negative assaults that are going to come his way?

Santorum has better take out his bullet proof sweater vest.