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Right Turn
Posted at 09:00 AM ET, 01/04/2012

Why Santorum?

Did I think Rick Santorum could win Iowa when I started covering him in earnest months ago? Let’s say I thought it was a long shot, but I did recognize him as someone with far more experience, knowledge and personal integrity than the flavors-of-the-month upon whom most of the mainstream and conservative media were fixated. Put it this way, I never thought Texas Gov. Rick Perry or Herman Cain were up to the task, and I had confidence that voters would recognize it as well. I was confident there was nothing new about Newt Gingrich, who would sooner or later show his true colors.

Santorum, even when he was in low single digits and virtually ignored in the debates, demonstrated several qualities that I found both rare and potentially beneficial.

To begin with, he is a well-educated man who cites (without pretense) everyone from John Adams to C.S. Lewis. He’s someone who thinks it important to know things — and know them in detail if you’re going to run for the presidency. And because he’s not a novice to public policy, he didn’t require a flock of consultants and advisers. In fact, I never spoke with a Santorum “policy guru”; I don’t think he has them, actually. Because he is knowledgable and doesn’t rely on consultants he readily spoke on the record, at length, about a variety of subjects. Few candidates can do that, and few campaigns would let their candidates do it.

Moreover, he understood that there is no bright line between social and economic conservatives. Many Tea Partyers are Christian conservatives, and many social conservatives are deeply concerned about the immoral generational theft that is transpiring by virtue of our fiscal recklessness. He sees the family, poverty, economic opportunity and employment as linked and can talk fluently in terms that encapsulates the multifaceted concerns of voters.

He also, from the beginning, did not shy away from foreign policy nor try to pander to the voters. He never said national security is cheap or that there is an easy approach to defeating jihadist terror. He didn’t throw red meat to the base by suggesting we cut off foreign aid.

In addition, he seemed to be a throwback, in the good sense of the word, to the sort of politics in which the end game is not ideological defiance but good public policy. He didn’t cheer for a default, and he didn’t suggest screwy economic plans (e.g., 9-9-9, sending Social Security to the states) that are complete non-starters with most lawmakers.

And finally, he walks the walk with regard to his values. His life and his public-policy stances are consistent, and you need not, as with Newt Gingrich, worry about his ethical makeup.

The faults that caused many to disregard him I found, frankly, trivial. Yes, he lost Pennsylvania by a lot in 2006. But many pols have lost races (e.g. Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon) only to come back when their views and skills are better appreciated. And yes, his debate demeanor needed some work. He was at times too strident or argumentative and at other points unable to conceal his annoyance with the lack of attention he received. But these are relatively minor things that can be addressed. And he did so.

None of this is to say that he doesn’t have enormous challenges ahead. He doesn’t yet have the money or the organization that Mitt Romney does. He’s going to get dinged for some votes in the Senate. And he might have a terse remark or two that comes off poorly But Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) had similar problems and won the nomination. And like McCain, Santorum doesn’t need a big infrastructure around him; he needs rather to get bodies on the ground and ads up on the air. There is time (not much) for that.

I suggest he’ll need to do four things to become a legitimate rival to Romney. First, he will need to finish second or third in New Hampshire, showing he’s got momentum and can do well in states that don’t necessarily have large numbers of evangelical voters. Second, he’ll need to explain his economic agenda and address concerns from fiscal conservatives that he is some sort of defender of big government. He’s got proposals on tax reform, spending restraint and regulatory reform, but he will need to, in short order, explain what he believes and why that’s compatible with a pro-free-market perspective. He may have explained his views in depth in Iowa, but most of the country hasn’t heard his stump speech yet. Third, just as he broke through the “he can’t win” barrier in Iowa and convinced voters they wouldn’t throw away their votes in supporting him, he’ll need to show how he’ll confront President Obama and why his agenda and biography are well suited to a general-election race. And finally, he’ll need to engage Romney without appearing mean-spirited. The speech he gave in Iowa, personally revealing and emphatic about the need to draw contrasts with Obama, is the sort of message he’ll need to repeat again and again.

He’s still the underdog. He’s still got big challenges.But he is running a thinking person’s race and one that puts a premium on governance. For those who like to think merit and character still matter, it’s a feel-good experience watching him run his race, win or lose.

By  |  09:00 AM ET, 01/04/2012

Categories:  2012 campaign

 
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