After back-to-back wins in Iowa and New Hampshire and leading in the polls in South Carolina, is Mitt Romney a lock to win the Republican nomination for President? He may be, but that's the wrong question. The right question for conservatives to ask is the one William F. Buckley formulated some sixty years ago: who is the most conservative candidate who can win? For the last two months or so, it looked like Newt Gingrich might be that candidate. Now Rick Santorum is giving him a serious challenge.
As a political activist from Pennsylvania, I have come to know Rick Santorum pretty well, beginning with his longshot race for the US Senate eighteen years ago. We've worked together, played golf together, teamed up on projects together, celebrated together and commiserated together. I can attest to his genuineness, his sincerity, to the role that his faith plays in his political philosophy and to his intellectual capacity to engage in original and creative thinking. Yet until Iowa, he was not taken seriously as a candidate for President in 2012. His campaign was underfunded, and he was tarnished as a vote-getter by his more than 17 point loss as a Senate incumbent in 2006.
But what he did in Iowa was an exercise in goal-setting and discipline — qualities that are essential if a leader wants to effectuate real change. This nation is on the wrong track, and if the current administration is not replaced this year, we could find ourselves so far down the track that leads to statism that we lose the commitment to individual liberty that has made ours the most productive, inventive, optimistic and generous nation the world has ever known. Mitt Romney has begun to sound like he gets how fundamental this threat is when he speaks about this election being a battle for the soul of America, but somehow when says it, it always sounds more technocratic than democratic, more focused on efficiency than effectiveness. In the wonderful words of management guru Peter Drucker, he's the efficient executive — the one who gets things done right — rather than the effective executive, the one who gets the right things done. The fact is, we need both, and that brings me to my main point today: if Mitt Romney is on the verge of inevitability as the Republican nominee, perhaps we need to shift our thinking to how conservatives can best influence Romney to embrace a more thoughtful, solidly grounded and intellectually rigorous agenda than he would otherwise be expected to adopt.
He needs the enthusiasm of the pro-life, pro-family, pro-Tea Party, pro-defense, pro-gun and pro-liberty base of the conservative movement if he is to be successful, and I can think of no better way to encourage him to move in that direction than to promote Rick Santorum as his most logical and helpful vice presidential pick. It's intuitively obvious that Newt Gingrich is ill-suited for that role just by personality type alone, and his recent descent into irrational and self-defeating attacks on Romney's venture capitalism should conclusively extinguish any speculation about Newt as a VP candidate.
But Santorum? Think about how well his blue-collar upbringing compensates for Romney's elitism, and how his appeal to social conservatives could infuse the ticket with a level of enthusiasm that Romney alone lacks. And if he can bring Pennsylvania's 20 electoral votes as well, there's almost no plausible path that leads to an Obama victory.
In short, Romney needs someone who can fire up the base while he wins over the swing voters that are increasingly disenchanted with Obama. As I survey the list of potential running mates, there is no one with the full package of intellectual, philosophical and political assets that Rick Santorum would bring to the Republican ticket. As long as Rick Santorum looks like the most conservative candidate who can win, we should support him — but if Romney appears to be the inevitable nominee after South Carolina, let's not be disheartened — let's promote Rick Santorum as the running mate that most helps Romney, and most effectively promotes conservatism.