Ross Douthat has a neat analysis of why Rick Santorum poses such a particular threat to Mitt Romney. Excerpt:

But Santorum’s advantage is that he can get to Romney’s right and to his left at once. On the one hand, Santorum isn’t responsible for a health care bill that looks an awful lot like “Obamacare” and he doesn’t have a long list of social-issue flip-flops in his past. This makes his candidacy a plausible rallying point for the voters who previously turned Bachmann and Cain and the pre-debate Rick Perry into conservative flavors of the month.

At the same time, though, Santorum’s persona, his record and his platform all have a populist tinge that plays well in states like Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, where swing voters tend to be socially conservative but economically middle-of-the-road. (Hence the Michigan poll that showed himleading among independents and Democrats who plan to vote in that state’s open primary.)

This means that Santorum can play the same anti-Bain, anti-rich-guy, blue-collar card that Gingrich tried to play in New Hampshire and South Carolina – but subtly, implicitly, in ways that don’t make him sound like he belongs in Occupy Wall Street instead of the Republican primary.

Ross suggests that Romney needs to find a way to frame Santorum as “the consummate Bush-era Republican,” which in most ways Santorum certainly is. I don’t see how Romney pulls this off, though. Can you think of a single thing Mitt Romney stands for today that separates him from George W. Bush’s policies? I know it’s risky business to try to pin Mitt Romney’s beliefs down, but in 2007, Big Think asked candidate Romney to reflect on Bush’s legacy. Here’s what he said; emphases are mine:

Well there will be things that are great accomplishments . . . I think we will recognize that he kept us safe these last few years, and that was not easy to do. He fought for the Patriot Act. He made sure that when Al Qaeda was calling, we were listening. He made sure that terrorists that were caught, we interrogated to find out what they knew so we could protect our country. He kept us safe. That’s the first responsibility of a president. Secondly, he went after the guys that went after us. No more in this world do you say, “Hey, we can go after America and nothing happens.” He made sure people realize there are consequences for attacking us. They attacked us at the U.S.S. Cole. They attacked us in Saudi Arabia. They attacked us in our . . . in African embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. And actually they attacked our Marines in Lebanon. We didn’t respond. And finally when George Bush was president and they attacked us on 9/11, we did respond in a major and aggressive way, and they know there are consequences for attacking us. His commitment to education and “No Child Left Behind”, I also support. And his effort to help people get prescription drugs I think was a good effort, although I think we should’ve reformed Medicare as part of the process because the Medicare Part D alone, I’m afraid, added a huge new entitlement that I think will not be a positive part of his legacy. There are other elements that were not as successful. I wish we would have been able to see the reform of entitlements. That just didn’t happen. He tried, that was unsuccessful. And of course the conflict in Iraq was not superbly managed. Following the collapse of Saddam Hussein, we just did not have the right level of troop strength. We did not have the rules of engagement or the . . . the plans and preparations in place to . . . to have Iraq become stable in the timeframe it should have become stable. So there will be pluses and minuses; but overall we’ll know that this is a president who did what he thought was right for America at every turn.

(In case you were wondering, the TARP bailout is not addressed here because this was recorded on November 26, 2007, before the 2008 crash.)

Let’s unpack this. Romney supported the Patriot Act. Romney supported the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and says the only thing that was wrong with attacking Iraq is that it wasn’t managed well. He supported No Child Left Behind. He supported the budget-busting Medicare Part D entitlement, though with reservations. And he believed that Bush’s good intentions absolve him.

Well, that was five years ago. What does Romney believe now? Go to the issues page on MittRomney.com and see for yourself. I dare you to find anything there that differs substantially from anything George W. Bush believed. Iraq isn’t on the list, but he’s following the Bush script for Afghanistan. He says nothing about education policy, but reportedly still supports the unpopular No Child Left Behind program. There’s nothing about banking regulations, which indicates that Romney doesn’t see a thing in need of reform there, a la Bush. And Romney supports TARP.

True, Romney opposed the auto industry bailout (which is hurting him in Michigan, predictably), though he blames Obama for it, not Bush, whose administration first provided bailout money to Detroit. Still, that’s a clear difference he has with the Bush legacy, though given how well the auto bailout has worked, I’m not sure that helps him much. Besides, his continued support for TARP means he doesn’t oppose bailouts in theory.

In sum, there is no credible way for Romney to paint Santorum as the consummate Bush-era Republican without condemning himself. If he tries to position himself as an “outsider,” given his lack of Washington experience (versus Santorum’s), all Santorum has to do is point out that the entire Washington GOP establishment backs Mitt — so who’s the real outsider? Yadda yadda.

The bigger problem here is that the Republican Party has not yet come to terms with the failures of the Bush presidency. Whether the nominee is Santorum or Romney, the GOP will be offering to voters a third Bush term. Exciting, huh?