Santorum's Next Steps

If I were a religious man, I would be offering prayers for Rick Santorum's daughter, Bella, who has a rare genetic disorder called Trisomy 18 which is often fatal but which also has sufferers, especially among women (according to the Trisomy 18 Foundation), who "are living into their twenties and thirties, although with significant developmental delays that do not allow them to live independently without assisted caregiving."

Even without prayer, my thoughts are with Rick Santorum's family in these difficult days as his daughter remains in the hospital. As a parent of young children, and having lost a brother (and seen the toll on my parents from losing a child), I sincerely hope that little Bella lives as long and full a life as possible.

But like it or not, this is a political season and there are few things without political implications when it comes to the lives of the candidates.

This is not a wildly insightful revelation; after all, the Santorum campaign has canceled all events by Rick Santorum today. And the Romney campaign has canceled its plans to run anti-Santorum ads in Pennsylvania today (submitting other ads, presumably positive, pro-Romney ads which don't mention Santorum) in their place.

I made this prediction a couple of months ago, and turned out to be wildly wrong, but I will make it again, particularly given how difficult "the math" has become in former Senator Santorum's quest for the GOP presidential nomination, and I say it knowing that Sarah Palin and her supporters (as well as Santorum fans) will likely have strong disagreement:

I believe that Rick Santorum will, and should, drop out of this race because of his daughter's health issues. Santorum is a committed family man, for which I have tremendous admiration. He cannot give his daughter the attention he wants to while focusing on a campaign, and he will not be perceived as a man who can give his full attention -- which is what is required  -- to a potential presidency while he is honorably and understandably distracted by his daughter's condition.

In a more Machiavellian sense, his daughter's plight gives Santorum a graceful way out of the campaign, not looking as if he's been forced out, not looking as if he believes he can't or won't win, and not having to risk the possible indignity of losing his home state of Pennsylvania. (For the record, I think Santorum would narrowly win Pennsylvania. But if he lost it, that would cause irreparable damage to his presidential hopes as well as to his future aspirations, whether in terms of running for office, being a power-player in Republican politics, or even writing a book.)

Santorum is being encouraged to stay in the race by "conservative leaders" who dislike or distrust Mitt Romney, particularly on social issues.

On these lines, allow me to relate a story: I was asked by a friend (who had been a popular elected politician) whether he should run for higher office. I told him "no" for a variety of reasons, primarily because I thought that particular election cycle was going to be exceptionally difficult for Republicans. He ended up running and losing, and -- I think, although he has never said as much -- somewhat regretting spending all that money, effort, and especially time away from his family, for what in retrospect was, as I had suggested, always going to be a losing cause.  None of that is the main point of the story, however.  For me, the lesson was learned more than a year later when I was told that of the twenty or so confidantes whom this person had asked the "should I run?" question, I was the only one who said "no."

When Rick Santorum thinks about those who are pushing him to stay in the race, he should question their motivations. Some sincerely want him in because they think he's best for the country, and they think he can win. (I put my colleague Quin Hillyer in that category, though to be clear I don't know what Quin thinks about whether Santorum should be staying in the race at this point.)

There is zero opportunity cost for Gary Bauer and others to push Santorum to stay in. They think, and not unreasonably, that if they provide the moral, financial, and other support which leads to a Santorum victory, that they will have a grateful friend in the White House who will help them when they need help -- beyond the policy position similarities they naturally share with him.

For anyone who suggests to a potential candidate that he not run (or to an actual candidate that he drop out), there is the perceived risk that the person will win, and then think that such advice meant that the person offering it had no faith in the candidate. In other words, one might fear losing access to power by advising against running.

But when I was asked that question, I took my role to be as a friend rather than anything else. And in that capacity, the answer was obvious to me. The "political risk" never crossed my mind. (For the record, I gave similar advice to another potential candidate; that person decided not to run, but I don't think my advice was a very large factor since he seemed to be thinking along those lines already. Still, I was proud of myself for putting my honest opinion ahead of my potential political gain -- not that doing anything else ever crossed my mind.)

These "leaders" who are pushing Santorum to stay in may not be his friends; after all, a friend is a very different thing from a political ally. I don't mean that none of his political allies could be his true friends, nor that some of these "leaders" might not give the same suggestion I am giving. I mean simply that the question should be asked.

I hope that Rick Santorum puts political advice he receive in the context of the motivation of those who are making it. I say that fully realizing that some may point a finger at me with my suggestion that Santorum get out of the race, noting that I am not Santorum's friend and that I have been quite clear in my pro-Romney leanings (for reasons of electability, not because I think any of the current crop of Republican candidates is inspiring.)

To that I plead no contest. Not only am I not Santorum's friend or supporter, but the only things I know about his family life, his daughter's condition, and other most important things going on in his life are what I read in news reports. My information is extremely limited, and I do have motives separate from Santorum's political best interest in wanting him out of the race.

But my fundamental argument is absolutely sincere, and what I would tell a friend in the same situation as Santorum: "You need to at least consider whether running for president is what's best for your family at this time, and whether what's going on with your child means that your continuing to run is what's best for the country."

My conclusion, and again I concede very limited information and not being a Santorum supporter, is that Rick Santorum has been given a compelling reason to leave the race and, while it comes due to very difficult events for his family, it represents a safe, if sad and unwanted, exit ramp from the current political autobahn.

By getting out, Santorum will burnish his credentials as a committed father, and boost perception (among those who already think it as well as those who don't yet have an opinion) that he is a good person. These things will serve him well in any future endeavors. Particularly given how difficult his path to the nomination seems, getting out now would be an unvarnished benefit to Rick Santorum's family and to his short- and long-term political future -- and perhaps to Republican chances of beating Barack Obama as well, though that is a debate for another day.

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