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Rick Santorum — who gained the media spotlight after coming in a close second to Mitt Romney in Iowa — has long been a hard-right social conservative: opposed to reproductive rights, adamantly homophobic, hostile to contraceptive use.

But he hasn’t previously been known as a race-baiter. The scion of a working-class Pennsylvania family, he spent his career in Congress pushing the right-wing dream list, including attempts to restrict the teaching of evolution.

While he joined most Republicans and some Democrats to pass permanent cutbacks to welfare programs in 1996, he didn’t demonize the poor. He didn’t engage in hoary stereotypes that equate welfare with black Americans.

So it’s curious to note a controversy that has dogged him since the day before the Iowa caucuses. Speaking at a campaign stop in Sioux City, he denounced state efforts to sign up more beneficiaries for Medicaid, which provides health insurance for the poor. News organizations quoted him this way: “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money; I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money.”

After he was roundly denounced by progressive activists, civil rights groups and liberal policymakers, Santorum claimed he was misunderstood. “I started to say a word and sort of mumbled it. … But I don’t … recall saying black,” he told CNN.

I’m going to take Santorum at his word, mostly because his record, while deplorable for its antediluvian politics, doesn’t include rehashing the infamous Southern strategy of appealing to whites who still resent black advancement. Besides, those wrongheaded stereotypes don’t play anymore, do they? Hasn’t the country progressed beyond the politics of the 1980s?

After all, Santorum and his colleagues, led by then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, “reformed” welfare during the Clinton era. Among other changes, they added a work requirement for recipients, as well as a lifetime cap of five years on benefits. Surely, voters no longer believe in Ronald Reagan’s fictional “welfare queen.”

It’s true that black Americans disproportionately benefit from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), relative to our numbers. But a 2003 government report to Congress may surprise you: Then, blacks accounted for 38 percent of TANF recipients, while whites accounted for 31.8 percent. Hispanics made up 24.8 percent of recipients; Asians, 2 percent; Native Americans, 1.5 percent; and (ethnicity) unknown, 1.9 percent. Blacks hardly overwhelm the rolls.

(Here’s a fact many Americans probably don’t know: TANF and related programs are a mere speck in a massive sea of red ink related to safety net spending. The big money is in Social Security and Medicare.)

The sad truth, which surely most voters know, is that less-educated Americans are finding it harder and harder to climb the ladder of economic attainment, no matter their race. Even conservatives, who have been reluctant to let go of their view of an America abundant in opportunity, have begun to acknowledge that economic mobility is more limited here than in Canada or Western Europe, with its dreaded “socialism.”

Once upon a time, high school graduates — and even dropouts — could get decent-paying factory jobs that provided a middle-class lifestyle, complete with health insurance and generous pensions. That day is long gone. For the last decade or so, workers ignored their stagnant wages as long as housing prices were rising and credit was easy. But a nasty recession and its lingering aftermath ripped down the curtain and exposed an economy with deep structural flaws.

Now that reality has struck, many Americans have looked for scapegoats. Immigrants have borne much of the blame for joblessness, falling incomes and lost savings, but they are not responsible. The truth is much more complex than that. The forces of globalization have been at work for decades now, and it will take years — and innovative government policies — to shore up the middle class.

If Santorum isn’t fueling the fires of racism, he, like most of the Republican field, isn’t owning up to the difficulty of fixing an economy beset by global forces, either. Lower taxes and smaller government won’t do it. Neither will a social/religious platform that could have been written in 1713.

(Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at cynthia@cynthiatucker.com.)

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