Wish I had a nickel for every conservative who confidently predicted that the Arizona debate would, of course, feature obnoxious questions about birth control and the devil aimed at Rick Santorum. As it turned out, CNN’s John King did not ask “gotcha” questions and, for the most part, conducted a fair and informative debate.
The debate moderated by King, along with other events of the past week, has resolved a question that has been swirling since the Missouri, Colorado, and Minnesota primaries: Why not Santorum?
There is much to like and admire about Rick Santorum. He did fine work enacting welfare reform in the 1990s. He was an eloquent and thoughtful advocate for the unborn. He has kept a weather eye on Iran for many years. He’s a dedicated family man. He was the first candidate to raise the issue of family structure in the context of discussions of poverty. And he had a solid, conservative voting record in Congress (with some exceptions — there are always exceptions).
But Santorum would make a poor Republican nominee.
Because he has phrased his socially conservative views in vivid terms, he is precisely the sort of candidate who will evoke a Pavlovian response from the press. Just as they were driven mad by Sarah Palin, they will be outraged by Rick Santorum. The campaign will be cluttered by the continual discovery of “controversial” Santorum quotes from the past three decades, and precious time will be lost as he explains, justifies, or withdraws his comments on women in the workforce, contraception, gay unions, Obama’s “theology” (by which he did not mean to question the president’s faith, something he’ll have to explain over and over), and so forth.
In fact, Santorum’s sanctimonious style might put off even many religious voters. His intense 2008 warning about “the Father of Lies, Satan” having his “sights on the United States of America . . . attacking the great institutions of America — using those great vices of pride, vanity and sensuality as the root to attack all of the strong plants that [have] so deeply rooted in the American tradition” is not the sort of language most preachers, to say nothing of political figures, employ today. American religion these days is heavy on forgiveness and light on sin. We’ve long since left Jonathan Edwards behind. Anything other than comic references to Satan are likely to give people the creeps.
Additionally, as Santorum himself seemed to acknowledge in the Arizona debate, the social issues that worry him (and should worry all of us), such as the collapse of the two-parent family, are not the kinds of problems that government can or even should attempt to solve. Yes, welfare programs that reward unwed parenting by subsidizing it are part of the problem. But, as Santorum will tell you (repeatedly), he helped reform welfare. That was the easy part. The rest is cultural change, and the president of the United States has very limited influence there.
If the fall campaign is all about what Rick Santorum said about gay adoptions, or a dozen other cultural live wires, it will not be about the Republican party’s most important and compelling issues: the ballooning national debt, the gross expansion of the federal government into every realm of life, economic growth, the flaccid foreign policy of the Obama administration, and the vain pursuit of “green” energy at the expense of abundant domestic oil and gas.
Americans are open to being persuaded that the federal behemoth can be tamed, that our health-care system can be saved before it buries us in red tape and incompetence, and that entitlements can be sensibly reformed. But they wouldn’t even hear those arguments from Rick Santorum. He’d be too busy putting Satan behind him.