WAY back in 2006, when I was just a slip of a reporter, like April O'Neil from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I interviewed for an internship in the Washington office of this publication. I remember feeling distinctly outmatched, except at one point: when the bureau chief suggested that Rick Santorum, then running for re-election to the Senate, would be re-elected. I was so startled by the suggestion that I forgot to be intimidated for a moment. There was no way, I objected; he had simply proven himself to be way too conservative for what is essentially a centrist, perhaps centre-right state. I got the job; the prediction proved correct. And in light of Mr Santorum's exit from the presidential race yesterday, we could add that the 2006 analysis still applied: Mr Santorum was just too conservative.
Most pundits would agree with that. In watchng the Santorum campaign over the past few months, though, it's occurred to me that if we were basically right, we were also partly wrong. As my colleague noted yesterday, in what was one of the blogosphere's more balanced reactions to Mr Santorum's exit, the idea that he would become the nominee was always improbable. But so too was the prospect that Mr Santorum would work his way up from a negligible presence in the polls, that he would carry 11 states on a shoestring campaign, that he would revive his political career after that 2006 drubbing, and that he would be, effectively, the last candidate standing between Mitt Romney and the Republican nomination.
Some analysts are dismissing it as a quirk of the process: this year's field was a weak one, with some of the party's strongest prospects—Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Tim Pawlenty—having sat it out entirely or defected early. "Santorum's success was entirely the function of his being a Republican not named Romney who happened to be there when every other alternative had either been destroyed by Romney's money or collapsed on its own," writes Jonathan Chait at New York. Joshua Green at Bloomberg Businessweek added, "Impressive as his performance was, Santorum triumphed over the likes of Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Perry—clowns and pretenders who made up the weakest Republican field in recent memory."
While that's no doubt part of it, this seems a little dismissive. If Mr Santorum was just the least-weak guy in a field of unusually weak also-rans, then Mr Romney should have dispatched him long ago. It's not as if the Romney candidacy snuck up on anybody. Incidentally, I'd like to register an objection to the recurring suggestion that Mr Daniels, Mr Christie, Mr Bush, etc, could have won if they had just run. Pretty easy not to lose if you don't try, isn't it?
Rather, I would suggest that Mr Santorum's relative success in this year's contest reflects some of his virtues, rather than everyone else's flaws. While his more extreme positions have been widely and frequently noted, his premises—that families are the bedrock of society, that people must be accountable to the better angels of their nature, that national greatness is a real and attainable concept, that liberty is under attack if it's not being defended—are not so so alarming. When I saw him in Louisiana last month, I had the impression that the crowd was responding to a positive vision rather than a paranoid one: not a United States where women are shackled to the delivery table while the men arm up and man the front lines against Islamofascism, but a country full of committed families, caring neighbours, and otherwise squared-away adults, getting on with their own lives as God would want them too.
Millions of people found that vision appealing. As my colleague mentions, Mr Santorum was the only candidate who talked about poverty and rural America in a serious way. We might conclude that his policy prescriptions were problematic, but his focus wasn't misplaced. If Mr Santorum proved himself to be too conservative for what is essentially a centrist, perhaps centre-right country, he also proved himself to be a committed campaigner and politician with some mettle. I wasn't going to vote for him, and a lot of his analysis was just confounding, such as the suggestion that we need more drilling partly because drilling leases are an important revenue source for the federal government, which was nonetheless going to sternly slash entitlements under a President Santorum. But in the end, Mr Santorum's campaign didn't strike me as alien or pernicious, and his endurance was a reminder, at least to this pundit, not to dismiss candidates too hastily.
(Photo credit: AFP)