02/20/2012 02:51 pm ET Updated Feb 20, 2012

Rick Santorum: 'If Government Is Going To Get Smaller, Then People Have To Get Bigger'

WASHINGTON -- Rick Santorum is trying to bring back a version of George W. Bush's compassionate conservatism, with one major difference: very little talk of government programs.

Bush's version was a government-centric model, which his campaign brain trust used to differentiate him from the stereotype of the free-market conservative who cared little about the circumstances of the less fortunate.

"We had to face reality: The Democrats had been wildly successful in painting the Republican Party as a natural home for right-wing lunatics and nutballs of all stripes. And the party hadn't helped itself with antics like shutting down the government," wrote Stuart Stevens, a strategist for Bush's 2000 campaign who is now running Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, in his 2001 book "The Big Enchilada."

"'Compassionate conservative' was the shorthand that would signal to the world that Bush was different," Stevens wrote. "We wanted people to hear it and think that yes, Bush was a conservative, but he cared about education, cared about the poor and lower middle class, cared about finding new solutions to vexing problems of inequality."

But many conservatives came to resent programs and legislation that originated in Bush's belief in compassionate conservatism, such as No Child Left Behind, the expansion of Medicare drug benefits for seniors, and the establishment of a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The right saw compassionate conservatism as the misguided philanthropic instinct that helped enlarge the size and scope of the federal government.

Nonetheless, Santorum on Monday acknowledged the same dynamic that Stevens and other key figures in the Bush campaign -- including chief strategist Karl Rove -- were reacting to in 2000. In fact, Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, went further, explicitly saying that it was true that many conservatives don't care about the poor, elderly and disabled.

"You have a lot of folks in our party who say, 'Cut government, cut taxes, everybody will be fine,' as they go off to the Hamptons for the summer. No," Santorum said, speaking to a large crowd in Steubenville, Ohio. "Go to the Lower East Side for the summer. Help out those in need in our society. Take the gift that God has given you and plow it back in, not to the government any more, but to your neighbors in your community."

Yet Santorum also spent much of his 45-minute speech emphasizing that he nonetheless wants to dramatically reduce the size of government. He acknowledged that this would mean reducing government aid, including welfare and entitlement programs for those in need.

"We not only have to revitalize this economy and understand what's at stake there, but we have to revitalize the basic institutions of our country, the church and the family," he said.

In unpacking his argument that the government should do less, Santorum exposed a deep challenge to conservatives like himself who do not espouse a simple blind faith in the free market to solve all inequalities and injustices. His belief, he said, is that people will have to step up of their own free will and help others, sometimes through institutions like churches and charities, and sometimes on their own.

The kicker? There's little the government can do to make this take place.

"We're going to be talking about cutting taxes, reducing taxes, growing the economy, having a strong military. But as I said before, those things alone will not dramatically transform our country. There always has to be a transformation here," Santorum said, pointing to his heart. "That's the ultimate transformation. I'm going to be perfectly honest about it: government can't make that happen. No government policy's going to make that happen. There are things that we can do to get out of the way. There are things we can do to facilitate it. But government isn't going to do that."

"I'm not going to go out and lay out an agenda about how we're going to transform people's hearts. But I will talk about it," he said. "One of the important things that the president of the United States can do is talk about things that the federal government shouldn't do but talk about what a good society should do.

Santorum said that as president, he would use his bully pulpit to encourage greater community involvement and activism.

"One of the things a leader needs to do is remind us who we are, and talk about the importance that … freedom is not an easier thing in some respects. It's easier that you have an opportunity to do the things you want, but it's also harder in the fact that you have to do the things you ought to do," he said.

He then, effectively, issued a challenge to the conservative movement.

"If government is going to get smaller, then people have to get bigger. And that means they have to stretch out more, they have to do more things," he said. "But how beautiful is that. How beautiful is that that you're going to have to do more to help those in need in our society?"

In the decade since Bush first ran on a platform of compassion, the Republican party has, for the most part, turned away from such rhetoric. The party responded to the rise of the Tea Party in 2009 by focusing on individual liberty and personal responsibility. The most visceral show of anti-government sentiment in the 2012 campaign came when CNN's Wolf Blitzer, during a September debate in Tampa, asked Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) how he would go about helping a sick person without health insurance.

"Congressman, are you saying that society should just let him die?” Blitzer asked. At least two members of the audience yelled out, "Yeah!"

Paul did not say that the sick person should be allowed to die. In his answer he emphasized the need for churches and communities to extend a helping hand, much like Santorum did Monday in Ohio. But Santorum has risen to the top of the GOP primary field in part because he has done the best job of authentically fusing traditional conservative social beliefs with the intense backlash on the right against the growth of the state and government programs.

He has also made an appeal to the blue collar middle class and working poor a central part of his candidacy, emphasizing his plan to cut taxes for manufacturers and pointing to his roots in steel mill country in western Pennsylvania, just across the border from Steubenville.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we need somebody who comes from the coal fields, who comes from the steel mills," he said Monday.

CORRECTION: A previous reference to "steel mining country" in the article has been corrected to read "steel mill country."