In a rapid response to Rep. Paul Ryan’s convention speech last August, I wrote:

In Ryan’s intellectual bubble, there are job creators and entrepreneurs on one side and parasites on the other. There is no account of the vast gray expanse of janitors, waitresses, hotel front-desk clerks, nurses, highway maintenance workers, airport baggage handlers, and taxi drivers. They work hard, but at the end of the day, what can they be said to have “built”?

In a speech late last week, former Sen. Rick Santorum did me one better. He remarked of the very same convention at which Ryan spoke:

One after another, they talked about the business they had built. But not a single—not a single—factory worker went out there. … Not a single janitor, waitress or person who worked in that company! We didn’t care about them. You know what? They built that company too!

Apparently, Santorum and I have a thing for janitors and waitresses. More importantly: They built that company too!

This is something of an intellectual breakthrough for a high-profile Republican.

At a gut level, most GOPers, including most especially the one who lost the 2012 presidential election, apply a rough sort of common sense to economic outcomes: people help themselves. Government may justifiably step in to come to the aid of those who can’t. Any market interference on top of that is an election-rigging “gift.”

The reality of what makes enterprises successful in an interdependent economy is of course more complicated; dividing makers and takers is less like the dramatis personae of an Ayn Rand novel and more like separating a brittle fossil from its surrounding matrix.

Rick Santorum, to his great credit, appears to get this.

I don’t want to get ahead of myself. Can I imagine Santorum going the full Pete Spiliakos? (Since Romney’s defeat, Spiliakos, at First Things, has been banging a drum for anyone who will listen: the GOP economic agenda also lavishes “gifts”—on an interest group otherwise known as high earners.) No, I can’t. Santorum is almost certainly stuck in the same gear as Sen. Mike Lee: the rhetoric is in the right place, but the policy details are still under development.

But better rhetoric is an improvement.

For that, conservatives in search of an intelligent, reality-based populism should be grateful.