A Requiem for Rick

Rick Santorum’s decision to suspend his presidential campaign came after a weekend when his daughter Bella was hospitalized again (she suffers from a life-threatening genetic disorder), and while facing a tough April with the only state he had much chance of winning being his native Pennsylvania. He was behind Mitt Romney by over 2-1 in the delegate count with the odds greatly against a comeback. He made a rational decision against continuing.

So now that his effort belongs to the history books, how should it be judged?

I have tremendous respect for anyone who runs for office: I’ve been “in the arena” since the 1970s and know it requires spectacular commitments of time, energy, willpower, brainpower, and money. Mark Shields claimed a presidential run is like “surgery without anesthesia … marriages, careers, and reputations are often casualties.” He was right.

Rick Santorum had one advantage at the outset: No one expected much when he announced his candidacy last spring. (One of his staunchest supporters complained that the Republican establishment was deliberately ignoring Santorum, which they probably were.) The last time Santorum faced the voters, Pennsylvania dumped him from his Senate seat in a record-breaking landslide. He was at 1% in a Gallup poll last November and had nowhere to go but up.

Up, he eventually went. After traveling in obscurity to every county in Iowa, Santorum watched Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich all rise and fall. He stuck to his guns (literally) and kept insisting that he would surprise the pundits in Iowa. Santorum peaked at the right time in early January and was finally declared the winner of the Iowa caucuses after a two-week recount.

After three upset victories in the heartland on February 7, he surged to a stunning 12-point lead in the Rasmussen Reports survey in mid-February. But he lost two achingly close key “battleground” contests in Michigan (by 3%) and Ohio (by 1%). After that, Romney’s superior finances and organization grinded out a victory, though Santorum did end up winning 11 states in the South and heartland, which is 11 more than most people expected.

Along the way, Santorum made his share of errors (as candidates often do) -- foolish comments on religion, college degrees, and contraception that made even some of his supporters cringe. His constant refrain that “America is above all a moral enterprise” was out of sync with the economically conservative suburban wing of the GOP, which undoubtedly would sooner agree with Calvin Coolidge: “The business of America is business.”

Should Santorum get another chance to run in 2016 or 2020, he will have to learn from his recent mistakes. A majority of Americans may agree with him on the Middle East, abortion, and gay marriage, but they don’t want to see campaigns turned into religious crusades. To improve his future prospects, he will need to broaden his message and base beyond the social conservatives of rural America.

He may get that chance due to his spirited campaign this year. Before he announced his campaign last year, he was a “has-been” whom few people had even thought of recently. Now, thanks to his shrewdness in spotting an opening among social conservatives and his strong message, he’s a national figure with a following.

What about the rest of 2012? Santorum indicated that he will campaign for Romney in the fall to defeat President Obama. In an editorial, the Wall Street Journal praised Santorum for leading the assault on President Obama’s health care plan, but also noted: “There are no consolation prizes in presidential politics.”

Actually, they are wrong about that: On three occasions in the last century, a presidential nominee picked the runner-up in delegates to be their running mate and then went on to victory in November. In 1932, Franklin Roosevelt chose John Nance Garner; in 1960, John Kennedy chose Lyndon Johnson; and Ronald Reagan chose the first George Bush in 1980. And of course, Johnson and Bush both became president.

The odds are against Romney selecting Santorum as his running mate, due to the personal animosity that developed in 2012 -- California Republican analyst Tony Quinn rates it as a 1 in 5,000 chance. But 2012 need only be a trial run. At age 54, Rick Santorum should have another national campaign in his future. Presumably, he’ll get his own show on Fox News or talk radio and hit the speaking circuit, thus earning a good living and keeping in touch with social conservatives.

In his Wisconsin concession speech, Rick Santorum deliberately evoked Ronald Reagan’s unsuccessful run in 1976 that was followed by a landslide victory four years later. That seems premature: one key difference is that Reagan took President Ford to the final night of the 1976 GOP Convention, holding the incumbent to just 52.57% of the delegates. Obviously, Santorum didn’t reach that level of performance this year. But who knows about next time.

Look at it this way: In 2011, Rick Santorum had virtually no future on the national stage. Now, thanks to his runner-up finish in 2012, he might yet have one.