Taking Down Santorum

by Ramesh Ponnuru

While I don’t think Santorum will be the nominee, I also don’t think it will be quite as easy to defeat him as Norman Ornstein suggests. He writes,

[T]he choice of a not-Mitt Romney conservative alternative went through several stages of infatuation and disappointment, from Bachmann through Cain, then Perry and Gingrich. All emerged, went through tougher scrutiny, and faltered. Santorum was the last one standing, and so far has escaped any serious look at his plans, his past record (remember the K Street Project?) and his history of highly charged statements (remember “man on dog?”) There is a reasonable chance, over the next two weeks, that the press and his opponents will subject Santorum to the same scrutiny that caused others to stumble– and that he will, leaving yet another vacuum in the battle to choose a not-Mitt.

Santorum doesn’t have the same vulnerabilities as his not-Romney predecessors. Republican voters won’t see the K Street Project as equivalent to lobbying for Freddie Mac. The problem that issue posed for Gingrich wasn’t just that he was (essentially) a lobbyist, but that he was lobbying for an organization that most conservatives consider responsible in significant part for the financial meltdown and the recession. Santorum is also knowledgeable, intelligent, articulate, and experienced, so he is unlikely to run into the same problems that other candidates have.

Going after Santorum’s “highly charged statements” would present dangers for Romney that I doubt he will want to take. Again the contrast to Gingrich is instructive. There is no significant Republican constituency that is invested in the claim that the welfare state made Susan Smith drown her kids, or that people like him are what stands between us and Auschwitz, or that the failure to qualify for the Virginia ballot was comparable to Pearl Harbor. There is one for the view that homosexual behavior is immoral. (NR’s editors have already warned Romney not to pursue this line of attack against Santorum.)

On the other hand — and here I’ll close on a note more favorable to Ornstein’s argument — Santorum’s comments about contraception might fall in a category of their own. Those comments do run the risk of making Santorum seem extreme, overzealous on social issues, and less electable, as that NR editorial also suggests. (My premise here is that there is no significant constituency in the GOP that wants a president to make the case against contraception.) All Gov. Romney would have to do would be to find an opportunity to say, perhaps in response to a question, that he does not think it made sense for presidents to lecture Americans about contraception.

In general, though, I think lack of money, organization, and executive experience are more likely to limit Santorum’s success in the primaries than “scrutiny” is.