Rick Santorum’s daughter: Can a political leader put family first yet stay in the race?


Rick Santorum’s 3-year-old daughter Bella was admitted to the Children's Hospital in Philadelphia Saturday night, prompting questions of whether the GOP candidate should suspend his presidential campaign to be by her side. (Matt Rourke/AP)

Leaders struggle with such personal versus professional conflicts all the time, though they are rarely set up in terms as stark as running for president or being by your gravely ill daughter’s bedside. Usually, the circumstances are far more pedestrian: Should I uproot my family to a new city for a great career move? Should I miss my son’s soccer championship game for a key deadline just before coming up for promotion?   

Santorum’s dilemma is complicated for two reasons. For one, staying on the campaign trail and away from his daughter (even if he did take Sunday off) is unlikely to improve his chances at winning the GOP nomination. He is running firmly behind Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, and his campaign is seeing dwindling funds, despite his win in Iowa. At the same time, his family-first, faith-based candidacy puts him in a leadership quandary: Should he stop running and spend more time with his daughter? Or is it better to keep fighting for his ideals and sacrifice his own family for what he believes is the greater good? 

I’m not going to make a judgment call on Santorum—it’s his decision as a parent and as a candidate. But I do know what I’d do in the situation. Big family sacrifices made to advance one’s career tend to be done when one is pretty sure there will be a significant upside. Missing the soccer tournament is hard, but it could lead to a promotion. Moving one’s family is difficult, but the higher salary and opportunities the new job opens up are worth it.

Of course, Santorum seems to see his campaign as far more than his “career.” He has said “I feel like I wouldn’t be a good dad if I wasn’t out here fighting for a country that would see the dignity in her and every other child.” Whether you agree with the notion that appears to be behind this—Santorum’s concerns about end-of-life treatment in the health-care system and his staunchly pro-life views—he seems, at least, to be convinced he is on a mission.

Either way, it’s hard to see that there is a significant upside for Santorum to stay in the race. There are few assurances that pressing on would bring him a better shot at a VP nod or cabinet slot, much less the nomination. It’s not like there aren’t other conservatives in the race who share his views about health care and abortion. If anything, making a symbolic gesture of putting family first could further solidify his character and the courage of his convictions about family life, making him more attractive to voters in the future.

Still, it’s not my place to decide. Family matters, and how leaders wrestle with the personal versus professional conflicts of their lives, are their own decisions. For political leaders, however, they’ll have to remember that voters will be watching how their personal choices reflect their professional views.


View Photo Gallery: A look at each Republican contender’s best leadership attribute.

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PHOTOS | The candidates’ best leadership attributes

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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