My colleague John Nichols is right to frame Rick Santorum’s appeal to working-class voters as primarily a question of electoral strategy rather than substance. And he’s also right to acknowledge that Santorum’s economics policies are mostly generic right-wing conservatism.

But Nichols still gives Santorum too much credit. Nichols writes, “Eschewing predictable ‘let-the-market-decide’ rhetoric about free markets and free trade, Santorum has made proposals for the renewal of American manufacturing an important part of his Iowa agenda.” The problem is a category error. Nichols praises Santorum for departing from GOP orthodoxy a handful of times to vote against free trade agreements. But that is of a piece with Santorum’s false premise about the struggles of working-class Americans, whicih Nichols fails to confront. Santorum’s votes against free trade agreements, like his current proposal to remove corporate income taxes on companies that bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States, rests on the conservative assumption that the only thing government should do for regular Americans is try to boost their employment prospects.

The truth is that overall employment, as well as employment in any given sector, will be determined largely by global macroeconomic forces that are largely beyond the control of the federal government. Automation, for example, means that over the past decade US manufacturing output has remained constant while manufacturing employment has declined by one-third. There’s no government policy that can reverse that trend, nor should there be. Passing or rejecting a specific free trade bill or tax break can only affect manufacturing sector employment at the margins. Nichols praises Santorum for voting for tariffs on foreign steel. Santorum represented the steel-state of Pennsylvania. This is just like Santorum’s penchant for earmarks: politicking to win re-election, and an unprincipled diversion from his general conservatism. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2008 “iron and steel mills and ferroalloy production employed 98,900 workers.” Tweaking those numbers through selectively imposing tariffs does not equal a working-class agenda. And steel is not immune to factors other than foreign competition that will reduce its employment. The same BLS report from 2009 noted, “Employment is expected to continue to decline due to consolidation and further automation of the steelmaking process.”

If you look at a graph of US manufacturing employment over time, you see that it never went much above 19 million jobs. That’s far from a majority of American workers. Right now we’re down around 12 million. Santorum’s efforts to tweak manufacturing employment might be praiseworthy, but they won’t affect the vast majority of Americans in need.

There is much more that the federal government can and should do to aid all Americans in areas where the free market fails them: providing health insurance, good free education, high-quality public transportation, civil rights protection and a clean environment. In the past Santorum showed some interest in a few of these issues: he voted for No Child Left Behind and advocated bringing low-income city residents to jobs in the suburbs. In his campaign’s current incarnation he has tossed all of that aside to appeal to the post–Tea Party Republican electorate. Santorum says NCLB was a mistake, and on issues like transportation he simply says nothing. On other important programs for the poor, working class and middle class—from Social Security to Medicare and Medicaid to food stamps—he proposes the same terrible ideas as Mitt Romney: slash spending, block grant to the states and privatize. Santorum’s working-class posture is a gimmick, and liberals shouldn’t fall for it.