In January, I enthusiastically endorsed Rick Santorum for President, having been convinced that he finally demonstrated the political acumen to complement his philosophical integrity. For a while, Santorum’s performance seemed to affirm my decision—he effortlessly assumed the role of adult in the room during the Florida CNN debate, and his strength in the polls remains far stronger than most would have predicted just a few months ago.
Unfortunately, a handful of incidents over the past two weeks have forced me to reconsider. First came his lackluster performance in the Arizona CNN debate, during which he rationalized his support of No Child Left Behind thusly:
I have to admit, I voted for that, it was against the principles I believed in, but you know, when you’re part of the team, sometimes you take one for the team, for the leader, and I made a mistake. You know, politics is a team sport, folks, and sometimes you’ve got to rally together and do something, and in this case I thought testing and finding out how bad the problem was wasn’t a bad idea.
Voting against your own principles because your team leader wanted you to? That’s not only about as un-Tea Party as you can get, it also stands in stark contrast to Santorum’s own one-word description of his candidacy that very night: “courage.”
Next, Santorum came under fire for saying that John F. Kennedy’s famous Address to Protestant Ministers made him want to “throw up”:
I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute. The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country. This is the First Amendment. The First Amendment says the free exercise of religion. That means bringing everybody, people of faith and no faith, into the public square. Kennedy for the first time articulated the vision saying, no, “faith is not allowed in the public square. I will keep it separate.” Go on and read the speech “I will have nothing to do with faith. I won’t consult with people of faith.” It was an absolutist doctrine that was foreign at the time of 1960.
Don’t get me wrong; I understand as well as anyone the truth and importance of Santorum’s underlying point, that the Left has twisted the Establishment Clause to obscure and erase America’s Judeo-Christian foundations. We need a candidate and a president who will make that case to the American people. But we don’t need a candidate who makes it so easy for the Left to caricature that case. While some of JFK’s rhetoric could be interpreted as Santorum describes it, it’s hardly an obvious or indisputable inference—I suspect most Americans would read it as simply meaning he wouldn’t discriminate against Protestants or take his marching orders from the Vatican. What’s more, how much mileage do you think the Democrats will get out of ads which present Santorum as a wild-eyed theocrat who “wants to throw up” when he hears passages like:
I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.
I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end; where all men and all churches are treated as equal; where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice; where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind; and where Catholics, Protestants and Jews, at both the lay and pastoral level, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.
And most recently, he and Mitt Romney have been fighting over a robocall which asks Democrats to vote for Santorum in the Michigan primary. While Romney’s reaction is overblown and hypocritical, the fact remains that it contradicts Santorum’s own stated disdain for Democrats influencing Republican primaries, and its message was worse:
Romney supported the bailouts for his Wall Street billionaire buddies, but opposed the auto bailouts. That was a slap in the face to every Michigan worker, and we’re not gonna let Romney get away with it.
Not only is Santorum resorting to the very same class warfare he so admirably resisted not so long ago, but it raises the question: how can it be a “slap in the face” for Romney to oppose the auto bailout, but not for Santorum himself to do so? Attempting to give voters a false impression that you supported something you actually oppose isn’t exactly confidence-inspiring. (And for what it’s worth, one need not support either bailout to recognize substantive differences between them.)
I’m not saying I won’t still vote for Rick Santorum in the Wisconsin primary. Many of his biggest assets—his unquestionable sincerity on social issues, his foreign policy expertise, and his relative purity on the crucial issue of government-run healthcare—remain unshakeable. Mitt Romney’s shortcomings (the latest example being this clumsy attempt to neutralize his wealth as a campaign issue) remain substantial. But I am saying I’m no longer certain he’s a stronger general election candidate than Romney, and so I must revert from identifying as a Santorum supporter to being undecided between Santorum and Romney.
Both men are far superior to Newt Gingrich (and Ron Paul, whose name shouldn’t even be spoken in the same breath as Gingrich’s). Both men have checkered pasts but are running on strong, unambiguous full-spectrum conservative platforms. Both men have denigrated themselves with petty, misleading infighting. Both men have displayed the capacity to change their tune for political expediency. Both men have shown promise in their ability to make the case against Barack Obama, but both men have also proven themselves to be disturbingly gaffe-prone.
I like and admire Rick Santorum. But I’m simply no longer confident enough in him to guarantee that he’ll get my primary vote. He and Mitt Romney have between now and April 3 to convince me they can get their act together and run a serious, focused, and reasonably caricature-proof campaign. May the best man win.