I’m in the camp that is torn about Rick Santorum’s electability. On the plus side, he has proved resilient in reviving his career after it was all but destroyed: That kind of grit will be essential in the general. He is capable of the elegant, masterful speech he crafted on the night he won Iowa. He seems to know how to tap working-class anxieties in a way that Mitt Romney likely can’t.
But on the downside, he has a video trail on social issues that may be about to devour him. It’s no one thing, but a totality of them: the aversion to birth control even for married women, the skepticism of women at work, the evident fear that careerism is a feminist trap. Even on ground that a substantial number of Americans occupy, such as opposition to gay marriage, his mode of argument is often the most explosive available — in this case, that same-sex relationships are not much distinguishable from intra-family or polygamous arrangements. While a Chris Christie is adeptly resisting gay marriage in New Jersey by invoking the democratic value of voters’ choosing rather than politicians, Santorum is traveling a path the media and the Left will besiege, and that the Right will not necessarily embrace.
A conviction politician whose convictions don’t persuade is not who Republicans mean to nominate. At best, it’s a diversion from a case about the twin deceptions of Washington and Wall Street that Santorum makes when he is in full flight. At worst, it’s a precursor to a party spending the fall fighting to recover a culture that has vanished.
So, Santorum should consider a modest proposal. Santorum would benefit from one comprehensive, major address — à la Obama on Jeremiah Wright — that addresses the perception that his religion would embroil his administration in a culture war. He needs to describe a faith that is sensitive to the assault on religious liberty, but one compassionate enough to know that there is legitimate conviction on the secular side of the equation, and that realizes that even the faithful don’t always end up with the same views. He needs to confess the limitations of having been a politician who has had to compress moral matters into a sound-bite. Without retreating on what he holds dear, Santorum needs to be overt about the fact that his presidency would not demonize or impede a shift toward more autonomy for women.
The Iowa speech suggests he has the eloquence to do it. If he can’t, he is about to enter the week that undoes his surge.
— Artur Davis served four terms in Congress representing Alabama’s 7th district.