David Brooks is back at it today, taking a second straight column to praise Rick Santorum for alone among the Republican candidates drawing attention to the woes of the working class and for drawing links between the strengths of their communities and values and our economic future. It is a more nuanced piece than Brooks' previous one, and notes that Santorum falls short when it comes to reckoning with the policy implications of a values-based economic outlook:

Santorum doesn’t yet see that once you start thinking about how to foster an economic system that would nurture our virtues, you wind up with an agenda far more drastic and transformational.
If you believe in the dignity of labor, it makes sense to support an infrastructure program that allows more people to practice the habits of industry. If you believe in personal responsibility, you have to force Americans to receive only as much government as they are willing to pay for. If you believe in the centrality of family, you have to have a government that both encourages marriage and also supplies wage subsidies to men to make them marriageable.
If you believe social trust is the precondition for a healthy society, you have to have a simplified tax code that inspires trust instead of degrading it. If you believe that firm attachments and stable relationships build human capital, you had better offer early education for children in disorganized neighborhoods. If you want capitalists thinking for the long term and getting the most out of their workers, you have to encourage companies to be more deeply rooted in local communities rather than just free-floating instruments of capital markets.

But of course these sorts of approaches are utterly at odds with current doctrine in the party whose nomination Santorum is seeking. I agree with Brooks that there is value in Santorum's mere acknowledgment that our society is no longer the land of Horatio Alger that Mitt Romney makes it out to be; indeed, I was one of the first to identify this aspect of Santorum's appeal. But I would caution against overstating Santorum's commitment to this message, as I think that Brooks, even with the above caveat, comes close to doing. The truth is, even someone as conservative as Santorum has let himself be ratcheted rightward to be considered acceptable in the GOP of 2012. He is in favor of slashing the already-low tax rates on capital gains and dividends, and he rails against the threat of European social democracy with as much fervor as any of the other candidates, a rhetorical stance that would make hard indeed to come out for wage subsidies or early education for children in "disorganized neighborhoods" or "encouraging" companies to be more "deeply rooted in local communities." Brooks notes that Santorum has in recent years come around to supporting community-building government programs like Americorps, but he must not have been at the Santorum event I was at on Friday in Marshalltown, Iowa, where Santorum told a young man who got up to advocate for Americorps and Habitat for Humanity that he just didn't see how we could afford to fund such efforts. "Is it the role of the federal government to do this?" he told the young man. "There are going to be programs like Americorps where we just don't have the resources." The young man,who appeared generally inclined to support Santorum, seemed slightly stunned by the answer. "Programs like these, you cut them and you'll be building more prisons. You can't find a more family-friendly organization than Habitat for Humanity," he said. In other words, he was arguing for the programs on Santorum's own terms, almost as if channeling Brooks. But Santorum ignored him and moved on.