Perhaps Rick Santorum is demonstrating persistence beyond the call of plausibility, but he says compelling political logic and high duty converge. Although he has not made a decision about 2016, he candidly says he is doing "everything consistent with running" - traveling to speak to sympathetic groups and donors. His hand is on his sword's hilt.
When Santorum entered the fray for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, he drew his sword and threw away the scabbard. The stakes could not, he thought, be higher, so he was in for the long haul. Which ended with the April 3 Wisconsin primary. Now the former senator from Pennsylvania, who wound up being the last man standing between Mitt Romney and the nomination, probably needs a new scabbard to toss aside.
With disarmingly cheerful ferocity he relishes combat in what he calls "a two-front civil war" within the GOP. The party is, he says, in danger of becoming "a one-legged stool." The "Eastern establishment types" want to saw off the cultural conservatism leg, concentrating on economic issues. The rising libertarian faction, exemplified by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, wants to saw off the strong foreign policy leg. Furthermore, Santorum says, "Americans are not ready for a dramatic withdrawal of government from their lives" of the sort many Tea Party types advocate.
This self-described "blue-collar Republican" insists, "We are not the anti-government party." Government has a role in the creation of "jobs for the majority who are not going to college."
Santorum became a senator at 36, a member of the Republican Senate leadership at 42, and an ex-senator at 48, when in 2006 he lost by 17 points in his bid for a third term. In 2011, however, this devout Catholic thought the other candidates for the nomination were perfunctory in their embrace of the social issues - principally, opposition to abortion - so he headed to all 99 Iowa counties.
Each rival had a brief moment as "not Romney"; Santorum's moment came, serendipitously, on the eve of the Iowa caucuses. In the first vote tabulation he lost by just eight votes. Sixteen days later, a revised tally showed that he had defeated Romney by 34 votes, 29,839 to 29,805. He believes he might have won the nomination if the first headlines had said "Santorum Wins." He won 10 more states, but his campaign essentially ended when he lost by seven points in Wisconsin, where he had hoped to prove he could win where evangelical Christians were relatively thin on the ground.
Looking to 2016, Santorum rightly says Republicans "have got to work on the hopeful and optimistic side" of politics. But he wants to compel a troubling conversation the nation would rather not have.
"At any given moment," wrote George Orwell in 1948, "there is a sort of all-prevailing orthodoxy, a general tacit agreement not to discuss some large and uncomfortable fact." Today that fact is family disintegration: 41 percent of American children are born to unmarried women, including nearly half of first births, 53 percent of Hispanic children and 72 percent of African-American children. In 2015, these facts will be discussed in connection with the 50th anniversary of the Moynihan Report.
In March 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then a 37-year-old toiling in the Labor Department's office of policy planning and research, published "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action." It said that in inner cities "the center of the tangle of pathology" was the fact that 23.6 percent of African-American children were born out of wedlock, compared to just 3.07 percent of white children.
Moynihan knew he was handling dynamite - he had only 100 copies printed, all marked "For Official Use Only" - but was stunned by the way discussion was shut down by accusations of "racism" and "blaming the victim." Santorum says that if Republicans will not speak for the many millions of voters concerned about social issues, "We'll be more competitive in states we lose and will lose states we should win," and "we will become the Whig Party and be done."
Before the 2012 Iowa caucuses he participated in 381 town hall meetings. One can, however, be a novelty only once, and although Santorum is a young-looking 55, in 2016 he will have younger rivals. Furthermore, he may not strike many Republicans as the answer to the party's problems with female voters and blue states. Nevertheless, there are gallantry and dignity in his steadfast determination to tack against the prevailing wind.
George Will is a columnist for Newsweek in Washington, D.C., and a commentator for ABC News.