Jacob Heilbrunn

Is Rick Santorum America's Next President?

One after another, Republican challengers have enjoyed a boost before flaming out against Mitt Romney. Now it's Rick Santorum's turn. Is he more than a one-day wonder?

The polls suggests that he may well be a more potent adversary than any Romney has faced. The latest Pew poll has him running even with Romney in Michigan. One problem—the biggest problem, in fact—is that the most interesting thing about him is that he's boring.  Countless op-eds and analyses have been penned to examine why Romney is such a dud as a politician. There are the gaffes—"severely conservative" is the latest one. And there is that peculiar chuckle to himself. Finally, he refuses to discuss his own religious background. It could become an issue precisely because he's trying not to let it become one. There are numerous landmines for Romney—today's Washington Post raises the question of posthumous baptisms in the Mormon Church, including Holocaust victims. Romney says that he has in the past participated in such baptisms but not with Holocaust victims. More generally, as Frank Rich has pointed out in New York magazine, Romney is burying the most fundamental part of his own identity, which is his religious faith.

The theme of the week is that Santorum is rising because social issues are making a comeback. Not exactly. If the economy were flourishing, as it was in 2004 when George W. Bush ran for reelection, then a case could be made that moral issues will be at the heart of the presidential run. But running against "bestiality," as Santorum likes to put it, is a loser. It would be hard to imagine a candidate more calculated to return Obama to the White House than Santorum. Conventional wisdom—which, by the way, often happens to be correct—is that Santorum will not defeat Romney for the nomination, that he will succumb to the juggernaut that Romney has tried to construct. Dan Balz notes in the Washington Post that Santorum is "for now, a place-holder for dissatisfaction with Romney. That is not enough to win the nomination."

No, it's not. This does not mean that Santorum is precluded from grabbing the nomination. The longer the primary fight goes on, the clearer it becomes that Romney is a lousy politician. He might excel at running organizations, but he lacks the common touch. The more he strives to display, the more awkward he appears. At the same time, Santorum does have the vision thing, clarity, a sense of purpose—all the things that Romney conspicuously lacks. Romney is charging into the battle against Obama. He is not battling for anything. The relentless negative message is repelling independent voters.

Romney's difficulties are compounded by the fact that the economy is improving. The improvement may be slow, but it is palpable. Perhaps Romney will be able to wear down Santorum, then wait for Obama to make some titanic miscalculation. War with Iran, as Robert Merry observes on this website, might be one such. But don't count on it. What if the war went quickly, in contrast to the Iraq conflict? What if Obama cruised into the general election as the man who acted decisively to defang the Iranian nuclear threat? Writing in the Weekly Standard, Tod Lindberg believes that a collision with Iran is "imminent." He could be right. It may be that Iran is courting an attack, figuring that this would legitimize its efforts to obtain a nuclear weapon and arouse nationalist fervor. What's more, in a "Nixon Goes to China" moment, it could be that only President Obama can actually carry out an attack on Iran—an option that George W. Bush shirked, preferring to attack Iraq, which was supposed to be an easy war of choice.

So far, this has not been an ordinary election year. It may be about to get a lot more extraordinary before it ends. War, the collapse of Greece, a stock market meltdown—anything might derail Obama, whose prospects appear much sunnier than they did a few months ago. Nothing could be more improbable than Rick Santorum swearing the oath of office in January 2013. But then who thought Barack Obama could become president when he first set out on his crusade?

Image: Gage Skidmore