Count me among the many who never gave Santorum’s candidacy more than a passing shrug. Even after wave after wave of non-Romney surges, I never thought that Santorum would take his turn in that role in any serious way. I rolled my eyes at the very thought. He had a capital “L” on his forehead after he was thrashed in his last statewide run and was a Johnny-one-note when it came to a platform.
But his showing last night, and more importantly, his articulate criticisms of Romneycare in one of the Florida debates, forced me to reconsider my dismissive attitude. Of the four remaining candidates, he alone is in the position of providing a clear, meaningful contrast with Obama – to give this election a focus that goes beyond personalities. While Ron Paul certainly seems to be on a mission to reduce the size and scope of government, it is one that is irreparably compromised by isolationism to be viable. Romney and Gingrich, in contrast, do not give the impression that this election is about anything other than Romney and Gingrich – less lethal to the Republic than Obama, but what else do they offer? A Romney win would be a mandate for … what? The watered down gruel of scaled down statist me-tooism that Republicans have been hawking since the New Deal? And his recent embrace of Tea Party rhetoric notwithstanding, a Gingrich win in November would be a mandate for, what, lunar colonies?
And a Santorum victory? What would that mean? If nothing else, it would be an endorsement of the view that social institutions other than the government are worth supporting. If there is one thing that pervades Obama’s thinking, it is that the role of the government should be paramount in virtually every sphere of human activity (from dietary habits, to energy usage, to health care, to housing, and even to religious matters, which he has politicized to justify his economic agenda). There is no discernible respect for tradition in his many self-aggrandizing speeches, no respect for liberty in anything other than the most superficial or libertine senses. Santorum’s history makes him ideally suited to make the scope role of government a defining issue in the election. It may be Pollyannaish to see this as making him more electable, but Richard Nixon’s Silent Majority still exists and may find Santorum’s clarity of thought refreshing. Those who protest the loudest about Santorum’s social conservatism would never vote for a Republican anyway and their over-the-top caricatures will not likely be persuasive to many.
Given all that, the potential benefits of a Santorum nomination seem to outweigh those of his rivals’, including even Romney’s marginally (fictionally?) higher electability. So, rather than dreading my state’s primary next month, I’m actually beginning to look forward to it. It’s nice to be wrong (once in a while).