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Rick Santorum's Intolerance (Not What You Think)

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As much as any other candidate, I think that Rick Santorum shares to my values: he's pro-life, pro-gun, pro-Israel, wants to cut government, and opposes higher taxes. I've had the opportunity to work directly with Santorum and his staff. Far from the uptight, almost asexual robot of late-night comedy shows, I've found that he's a relaxed, wonkish guy with a good sense of humor. But, despite my good feelings about Santorum the man, I'm convinced that he simply cannot be allowed to become the Republican nominee. Quite simply, Rick Santorum is intolerant in a way that hurts the Republican Party.

I'm not talking about the stereotypes that the much of the left-wing media casts on him. Despite his "google problem" Santorum isn't an anti-gay bigot. Like many other people of deep faith, he's simply following the very clear teachings of his church. (Santorum long employed an openly gay chief spokesman and, unlike Ron Paul, seems to have no problem with gay individuals as people.)

The number of strong, working women he surrounded himself in the Senate shows that he's not a sexist. He's clearly not a racist either. During my time in working in the Senate, I saw him make stronger, better and more sincere efforts to reach out to African-Americans than any other member of the GOP caucus. Santorum's style, manner, and emphasis -- combined with his strong campaign call for more manufacturing jobs -- also means that he is one of the few Republican candidates who makes a strong effort to reach out to working class Americans. So, for the type of tolerance that many on the left care most about -- the holy trinity of race, class, and gender -- Santorum does pretty well.

But if Santorum is tolerant of the differences those on the political left tend to care most about, he's also the most intolerant of a type of difference that is a lot more important: differences of opinion. The warmly received speech he gave February 10 at CPAC lambasted conservatives for losing heart and compromising too much. "We will no longer abandon policies and principles that made this country great, for a hollow victory in November," he said. Santorum, furthermore, promised to surround himself only with people who share his values. This, to me, is a pretty clear code language for the idea that he won't appoint pro-abortion people to any position in his administration. Worst from my perspective, he designated the Republican Party a "conservatives only" club saying that conservatives were not only in the Republican Party but were the whole Republican Party.

And this is a huge mistake. In a two party system, no party can succeed by appealing only to one ideological segment of the population: while "conservative" is the single largest self-applied ideological label, only a hair over 40 percent of the population identifies itself as such. A party that attracts only conservative voters simply cannot win national elections. To win elections, conservative candidates need to attract some non-conservatives. And successful ones have: Reagan brought non-conservative "Reagan Democrats," into the GOP camp, for example, while George W. Bush made real inroads among suburban parents concerned about education.

Bringing in non-conservative voters doesn't mean compromising a single issue position -- it just means making it clear that they are welcome to work on the parts of the conservative agenda they like and will have a place at the table to discuss things they disagree upon. Since conservatism itself is an evolving ideology that holds no single policy course as a matter of faith and advances no utopian vision, indeed, having intra-party dissent on a wide range of issues ought to be welcomed anyway. And these differences have, necessarily, to extend to many issues of values that can divide people of good will.

While it's quite justifiable for a pro-life conservative to insist that a secretary of health and human services be pro-life, one's position on abortion shouldn't be a qualification (one way or another) to serve as secretary of the Treasury. Santorum seems to be suggesting that it should. On a large number of technocratic tasks, furthermore, ideology is largely irrelevant: there is no Democratic or Republican way to command troops in battle, send out Social Security taxes in a timely manner, or fund transportation projects.

A winning Republican Party is, indeed, a conservative party. But it needs to appeal to non-conservative voters. And Rick Santorum's efforts to hang a "no moderates allowed" sign on the GOP's door will hurt the Republican Party. It's this type of intolerance -- this intolerance for non-conservatives -- that makes him an electoral danger to the GOP.

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