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How Santorum, unafraid to talk about poverty, differs from GOP on economic policy

Zachary Roth
The Ticket

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Rick Santorum at CPAC (Jose Luis Magana/AP)

As he's shot to the top of national polls of the Republican presidential race lately, Rick Santorum's stance on social issues has garnered most of the attention, while his economic policies have taken a backseat. But with the former Pennsylvania senator set to give a speech on the economy Thursday in Detroit, let's look at what a President Santorum would do on jobs, taxes, and spending.

Much of Santorum's plan, which he calls "Made in America", is firmly in keeping with modern-day Republican orthodoxy: he would dramatically cut spending, insist on balanced budgets, flatten the tax code, cut corporate taxes, repeal "Obamacare," privatize Medicare, and audit the Federal Reserve. But other aspects, like his policies and rhetoric addressing poverty and the working class, are more surprising and veer away from party doctrine.

Santorum would cut federal spending by $5 trillion over five years, and pare non-defense spending back to 2008 levels -- a reduction of around 30 percent from 2012. He also backs a balanced budget amendment, which would limit federal spending to 18 percent of gross domestic product -- around $2.6 trillion for this year. He even wants to stop lawmakers from being paid if they don't pass fiscally responsible spending bills on time.

The plan also calls for a flatter tax code, with just two income tax rates: 28 percent, and 10 percent. That would likely mean an income tax cut for many of the richest Americans, who currently pay a 35 percent rate, though Santorum also pledges to eliminate "most deductions," which tend to benefit the rich. And he would cut the capital gains tax from 15 percent to 12 percent, which would help Wall Street professionals and others who make money through investments.

His plan would also likely mean a cut for many of the tens of millions of households making between $17,400 and around $50,000. They'd presumably fall into the 10 percent bracket, down from the 15 percent rate they currently pay. In keeping with his traditional views on social issues, Santorum also wants to encourage family formation (he and his wife have six children themselves), by tripling the personal deduction for each child, and by scrapping marriage tax penalties.

Unlike Mitt Romney, Santorum has said he opposes a rise in the minimum wage, although he wouldn't scrap the concept altogether, as some in his party would. As well as auditing the Fed, he'd have it focus only on controlling inflation, and not on promoting employment. Santorum supports Rep. Paul Ryan's plan to save money by transforming Medicare into a system of private insurance. And like every 2012 Republican presidential candidate current or former, he'd repeal President Obama's health-care law.

So far, that's a plan that sticks pretty closely to the standard GOP script. But other aspects of Santorum's proposal set him apart from his party, by grappling with issues of concern to Americans further down the economic spectrum.

Again like most of his GOP rivals, Santorum would lower the corporate tax rate. But he'd establish two new rates: 17.5 percent -- a 50 percent cut from the current 35 percent rate -- for most businesses, and zero for manufacturers. The goal, his website says, is to "multiply job opportunities for struggling middle-income families and renew communities that have lost critical manufacturing jobs."

In campaign appearances and debate performances, Santorum has often appeared eager to reinforce that focus on restoring middle-class jobs -- implicitly bucking the standard Republican line that derides issues of economic inequality and mobility as class warfare.

"We need to talk about income mobility," he implored his party at a Republican debate on economic issues in November, noting the sky-high jobless rate for Americans without college degrees. "We need to talk about people at the bottom of the income scale being able to get necessary skills and rise so they can support themselves and a family."

By the same token, Santorum hasn't shied away from mentioning poverty. "I don't believe that poverty is a permanent condition," he declares in the plan. "How do we effectively address poverty in rural and urban America? We promote jobs, marriage, quality education and access to capital and embrace the supports of civil society."

That's an approach that differs from President Obama and most Democrats, by placing less emphasis on the government safety net. But it also stands in contrast to most of Santorum's rivals in the Republican race, where the word poverty has barely been mentioned, despite a record number of Americans living in poverty.

What does all this mean for the economy? It's difficult to say, in part because the plan lacks specifics in some areas, and the campaign didn't respond to several requests from Yahoo News to provide them. With the level of spending cuts that Santorum wants to balance the budget, and no major stimulus outlined beyond tax cuts, his stated goal of 4-4.5 percent growth in his first term seems unlikely. But if nothing else, Santorum's willingness to at least pay lip service to the concerns of struggling Americans suggests a broader focus than that of many of his rivals.

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