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Would Rick Santorum Know a Tea Party if he saw it?

From the diaries.

On today’s edition of Coffee and Markets with Brad Jackson and Anne Sorock, I mentioned witnessing a conversation with Rick Santorum yesterday, without realizing it had been written up in Politico and at CNN. Essentially, Santorum was arguing that outlier 2012 candidates like himself and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson were “true Tea Party candidates”, which he describes as follows:

“There isn’t a single candidate running for president who can claim to be a Tea Party candidate,” Santorum told Politico. “That’s by definition. The people involved in the movement weren’t involved in politics, and were only activated by what they saw in Washington.”

Santorum and Johnson no longer hold elected office, a fact Santorum said qualifies them as possible Tea Party candidates.

“I qualify,” Santorum said. “I was out, content to be out, but now I feel compelled to come back.”

Does Rick Santorum have any clue what the Tea Party movement stands for? Is he being purposefully obtuse here? Doesn’t he realize that the big government solutions he advocated for in his book are exactly the reason so many Tea Partiers today don’t call themselves Republicans any more? Certainly, Santorum was a crusader for social conservatives during his time in office, and since leaving office has become a more prominent spokesman on foreign policy — but he was never categorized as someone with robust views on the size or scope of government. As Jonathan Rauch wrote in his book review of the Senator’s It Takes a Family, “[Santorum's] first priority is to make government pro-family, not to make it small.”

Whatever Santorum is as a candidate for the 2012 nomination (besides laughable), he is not and will never be a “Tea Party candidate” by any definition but his own. While he and other candidates may long to adapt the Tea Party label to their own political comebacks, the truth is that the Tea Party exists mainly as a rejection of a permissive attitude toward massive government spending and “compassionate” programs by people who loved playing the statesman role in the GOP over the past decade. And Tea Partiers know it.

One final note: as Dan McLaughlin noted on his Twitter feed, it’s funny to consider all this in the context of Santorum’s decision just six years ago to refuse to endorse Pat Toomey over Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania. Today Toomey is a Senator, and Santorum is just a scalp on Tim Gill’s wall.

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