Since Santorum’s surprise second-place finish (or possible victory) in Tuesday’s caucus, the upper echelons of the echo chamber have been abuzz with analyses, contextualizations and other tracts to enlighten the hoi polloi as to What it All Means. The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne points to Huntsman and Santorum as evidence of what he sees as a “traditionalist-modernist clash,” the result of which will define modern conservatism:

Santorum is what Republican strategist Steve Wagner years ago called a “social renewal” Catholic. These Catholics see opposition to abortion as a foundational matter and opposition to gay marriage as essential to “protecting” the family. They view the federal government less as a guarantor of social fairness than as “inflicting harm on the nation’s moral character,” as Wagner has put it.

Huntsman’s supporters on the other hand are “less intensely religious economic rationalists who do not perceive culture wars as breaking out all over.” The contrast between the two, and the putative battleground for the Republican soul, is on social issues. The trouble is their positions aren’t all that different; Dionne is trying to contrast the wacky Sharia-paranoid Pennsylvanian who would annul gay marriages and the affable Huntsman who legalized civil unions and enjoys wide support from the liberal punditocracy. His straining means he misses the more troubling fact of their congruence on the far more consequential debate among conservatives regarding continued support for preemptive wars abroad.

Former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson and David Brooks are a bit more penetrating, citing the communitarian Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity as evidence of Santorum’s small government credentials. Brooks writes:

Communities breed character. Santorum argues that government cannot be agnostic about the character of its citizens because the less disciplined the people are, the more government must step in to provide order.

His political philosophy is built around the Catholic concept of subsidiarity — that everything should be done at the lowest possible level. That produces a limited role for Washington, but still an important one.

Gerson is even more effusive, heading off criticisms of Santorum’s establishment record:

This is not “big government” conservatism. It is a form of limited government less radical and simplistic than the libertarian account. A compassionate-conservative approach to governing would result in a different and smaller federal role — using free-market ideas to strengthen families and communities, rather than constructing centralized bureaucracies. It rejects, however, a utopian belief in unfettered markets that would dramatically increase the sum of suffering.

But does Santorum really believe in a limited role for Washington? His record on the nation’s largest financial commitments, entitlements and defense spending, is mixed at best. He supports the Paul Ryan budget plan, but voted for Medicare Part D. He joined the board of a rather shady company currently under investigation for Medicaid fraud after impacting legislation that would benefit them. He’s only recently waded into talking about Social Security reforms, though he supported privatization during Bush’s second term. He’s an ultrahawk that has no compunction about changing current laws “to comport with a higher law: God’s law.”

Those suspicious of Santorum’s commitment to individual rights need look no further than Santorum himself for confirmation. As he told NPR in 2006,

One of the criticisms I make is to what I refer to as more of a libertarianish right. … This whole idea of personal autonomy, well I don’t think most conservatives hold that point of view. Some do. They have this idea that people should be left alone, be able to do whatever they want to do, government should keep our taxes down and keep our regulations low, that we shouldn’t get involved in the bedroom, we shouldn’t get involved in cultural issues. You know, people should do whatever they want. Well, that is not how traditional conservatives view the world and I think most conservatives understand that individuals can’t go it alone. That there is no such society that I am aware of, where we’ve had radical individualism and that it succeeds as a culture.

Santorum reveals no antipathy toward unfettered state power at all; in his world taxes are tithes, not theft. For the rest of us, his own nephew has a more realistic take in his endorsement of Ron Paul:

If you want another big-government politician who supports the status quo to run our country, you should vote for my uncle, Rick Santorum. America is based on a strong belief in individual liberty. My uncle’s interventionist policies, both domestic and foreign, stem from his irrational fear of freedom not working.

To see the real conservative rift, Dionne didn’t even have to look outside Santorum’s family.