Kathryn Lopez asks an important question: What do people mean when they say “Rick Santorum is not presidential”? There are, I would suggest, two categories for such responses.
The first is that the person raising the objection doesn’t see Santorum in those larger-than-life terms that we associate with a presidential nominee. That may be because he’s not undergone that transformative process that happen when a virtual unknown becomes a front-runner. He’s just gotten there, so the sense of command and the confidence exuded by men who see themselves as the next president are not yet evident.
Inherent in this is some criticism, partially legitimate and partially not, that Santorum lacks some polish and rhetorical uplift. He certainly could follow Mitt Romney’s lead and have a scripted victory speech and even resort to teleprompters for these widely watched moments. It makes the delivery smoother and the appearance more, well, presidential. As for his content, like a lot of candidates, he is a work in progress.
He actually can be inspirational, as he was after his Iowa win. But he he can also seem more senatorial, dishing out barbs to his opponents. He will, I suspect, find and refine a rhetorical pitch that is within his range and is effective. Just as he improved in debates (from sometimes resentful about being overlooked to commanding) he will grow with experience in delivering remarks in big moments.
The other category of “not presidential” complainers are those who object to his agenda. They get nervous by his excessive talk about faith. They’d prefer he get off the talk about families. They worry he’ll never win over upscale suburbs. They see, if Santorum is the nominee, a vulnerable president being able to get off the hook and hide his record in a campaign turned into a cultural battle.
“This is not what presidents talk about,” they say. Just today the Wall Street Journal editorial board admonishes him that “a President can do only so much to shape the culture, while in the current moment he can do a great deal more to help the economy.”
Voters will have to assess for themselves whether Santorum is giving short shrift to economic issues. The Journal editors make clear on which side of the fence they sit: “Mr. Santorum often gives the impression that he views the economy as a secondary issue, something he’ll get to after he saves the traditional family.” And there is room for debate over whether his stance on cultural issues will help or hinder him in the general election. But it’s not quite right to say all of that makes Santorum “unpresidential.” Rather, that is actually an expressed concern about electability. Perhaps those with this worry are really saying, “I can’t imagine a guy like that making it to the White House.”
On this last issue, I would commend to voters and the Santorum team the example of Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. He is a staunch social conservative who took a beating for his past views, for example, on women in the workplace, during his campaign. He never backtracked or deviated from his position. But he focused like a laser on bread-and-butter issues. He related values issues (e.g. school choice) to economic progress and opportunity. He understood what the critical issues for voters were. And because he did that, he won by nearly 20 points, carrying even the recently Democratic bastion of Fairfax County in Northern Virginia.
Santorum can’t and shouldn’t change his core beliefs or his agenda. But a candidate running for president can constantly improve his presentation and must be mindful of the issues voters care about most. If Santorum does both these things, voters will soon be saying, “Gosh, I never realized how presidential he seems.” Happens every time when a relative unknown climbs into contention.