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Zac Morgan Headshot

Rick Santorum and the Bully Pulpit

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Everybody knows the weaknesses of Mitt Romney. Most of them center on the former Massachusetts governor's track record of appearing to have a different governing philosophy depending on what office he is running for. Romney ran against Ronald Reagan in 1994, touted smart growth and gun control in 2002, and tacked to the right on abortion as soon as it became apparent that he could become a 2008 Republican contender. Sometimes Romney looks like the GOP's very own John Kerry -- a Bay State flip-flopper with nice hair. (Although, I hasten to add, if we had 8 percent unemployment in 2004, Kerry would have won.)

Rick Santorum poses a different sort of problem. The former Pennsylvania senator has the sort of pedigree one might expect from a successful Republican presidential candidate: a proponent of the conservative success of welfare reform, years of foreign policy experience, a serious commitment to governing. And refreshingly, Santorum recognizes the problems of family breakdown and fraying social mobility, issues that are intertwined and vital to future growth for the United States.

Unfortunately, as this last Republican debate and the past week have proved, Santorum runs into a serious problem whenever sexual issues come up. Santorum's comments about the harm of contraception do not pander to the Christian conservative base -- they pander to the base of the Christian conservative base.

Meanwhile, as state after state legalizes gay marriage, either through legislative vote or judicial opinion, national support for same-sex marriage has increased dramatically. In 2004, the country was solidly against gay marriage; now, the issue probably has a slim majority of support. As older Americans pass on, and younger Americans attain voting age, this trend will continue, until the country broadly accepts gay marriage.

If Barack Obama loses, the next Republican president will have to deal with a fragile and reversible economic recovery, the growth of al Qaeda in the Horn of Africa, Iran's nuclear program, and working to wind down the national debt (among a few billion other things). This same president will also preside over a country where an increasing number of states will be ratifying gay marriage and gay adoption.

Rick Santorum has taken an unequivocal stand on same-sex marriage. He has declared (quoting Lincoln) that "the states don't have the right to do wrong." He has pledged to fight in every state that brings up the question. Senator Santorum campaigned vigorously for the recall of the Iowa judges who legalized gay marriage, and we have no reason to expect him to act differently as a president with a bully pulpit. And God knows what he would do if the Supreme Court ruled that the Equal Protection Clause made marriage a constitutional right for all couples, gay or straight.

Republicans have to ask themselves: do they want a president who will waste valuable political capital and credibility fighting a losing issue? A president who will take his eye off the economic ball for every marriage vote? Who could offend enough of the country so as to make his agenda on everything else a non-starter?

Or do they want a president who might be... a bit more flexible on the matter?