Rick Santorum is talking what sounds like Republican heresy.
It's time to move beyond Ronald Reagan, he says. Labor should be valued as much as capital. Rising income inequality is a problem.
The former Pennsylvania senator and 2012 GOP presidential candidate has not quite turned Marxist, but he is pushing the argument that in order to win the White House again, the Republican Party must focus its message and its policies on working-class Americans.
"You have to remember, Ronald Reagan was a man of his times," Santorum said in a recent interview. "America is a very different country than it was 40 years ago." He said it's not enough to rely on cutting capital-gains taxes or income taxes on the wealthy in hope of spurring the economy.
"I just don't think that works, and it doesn't make a lot of sense to people, because in times when the economy has done better, not everybody has," Santorum said. "A lot of Americans are in fact falling behind, particularly in the middle."
Santorum was in Philadelphia to talk about and sign copies of his new book, Blue Collar Conservatives, as part of radio talk-show host Dom Giordano's speaker series.
As he travels the country hawking the book and campaigning for Republicans, Santorum is at the center of the ferment over the future of the GOP, not to mention laying out a vision that would differentiate him from likely rivals should he choose to run for president again in 2016. (He says he's thinking about it.)
Shades of 2012
Santorum talked about the anxieties of the middle class often on the 2012 presidential campaign trail, and the story of his grandfather, an Italian immigrant coal miner from Western Pennsylvania, was a centerpiece of his stump speech. Santorum won 11 primaries or caucuses, giving a good scare to Mitt Romney, the eventual Republican nominee.
"You're seeing investors and folks who have wealth do very well, and people who are wage earners not doing well," Santorum said in the interview. He mentioned the tech start-up WhatsApp, whose pending acquisition by Facebook for $19 billion will enrich a handful of investors and its 55 employees.
Innovation is great, Santorum said, but only a revitalized manufacturing sector, built on cheap energy, can bring broad prosperity to the 70 percent of Americans who don't have a college degree.
"When you make things and have a manufacturing economy, you have the opportunity to distribute wealth more equitably," Santorum said, recalling the thriving, steel-producing Pittsburgh of his childhood.
A new direction
Other Republicans have been moving in this direction, fueled by a small band of conservative intellectuals who, like Santorum, say that the GOP must abandon its devotion to wholesale tax cutting, slashing government programs, and cozy relationship with the financial markets.
"Our average voter is not John Galt," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) said, referring to the libertarian hero in Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged during a May forum at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute.
"Hymns to entrepreneurialism are, as a practical matter, largely irrelevant," McConnell said.
Among the ideas under discussion in the conservative think tanks: expanding the child-care tax credit and creating tax incentives for employers who hire workers off the unemployment rolls.
Efforts to grapple with a new approach have been overshadowed by the fight between tea-party activists bent on shrinking government and the GOP's traditionally business-friendly establishment.
When he was a U.S. senator representing Pennsylvania from 1995 to 2007, Santorum was known mostly as a cultural warrior for his opposition to abortion rights and same-sex marriage. But he also voted against the North American Free Trade Agreement, backed public-works construction projects, and pushed for tougher enforcement of trade restrictions to buffer industries such as steel from foreign dumping.
"I have a pretty long history of being in this space, and advocating for the average guy, because that's sort of where I see myself," Santorum said. "It's where I came from. That's what I know."
Can his message fire up the party of Reagan?
Elliott Curson, a Philadelphia-based GOP media strategist who made television spots for Reagan in his 1980 campaign, said that both Republicans and President Obama could learn from the Gipper's ability to work with the other side.
While suggesting that Santorum is trying to find a niche for another run for president, Curson said that there was something to the critique that the GOP message has grown stale.
"We do tend to repeat the same tired message over and over - it's rote," Curson said. "Tell me somebody is running for the House or Senate as a Republican anywhere, and I can tell you exactly what their campaign is going to sound like."
The party would be better served, he said, by campaign themes that relate to people in the districts and states, rather than cookie-cutter denunciations of Obamacare or other focus-grouped gruel.
Charlie Gerow, a Harrisburg Republican strategist who also worked on Reagan's campaigns, said he sees a need for the party to reach working-class voters, but not to change its principles.
There is room for new ideas on how to stimulate economic growth, Gerow said, but the core of the GOP brand is the "message of opportunity and growth" that Reagan preached.
"The Democrats have been able to wage class warfare for the last four or five cycles," he said, "because we Republicans haven't countered it as well as we should have."