Matt Lewis

Santorum may have won the gay debate, but was it a pyrrhic victory?

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Matt K. Lewis
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      Matt K. Lewis

      Matt K. Lewis is a senior contributor to The Daily Caller, and a contributing editor for The Week. He is a respected commentator on politics and cultural issues, and has been cited by major publications such as The Washington Post and The New York Times. Matt is from Myersville, MD and currently resides in Alexandria, VA. Follow Matt K. Lewis on Twitter <a>@mattklewis</a>.

By now, you’ve probably seen the video of former Sen. Rick Santorum being booed in New Hampshire, after engaging in a debate with college students over gay marriage. (If you haven’t seen it, you can watch it here.)

A few of observations…

First, this is the reason we have “safe” candidates who spout trite bromides. It is generally believed by most political consultants that it is a mistake for candidates to stray from their talking points (when they do, they open themselves up to ridicule and being booed.)

There are countless political axioms that would seem to indicate Santorum’s willingness to have a real discussion was a mistake: “If you’re explaining, you’re losing,” they say. “Pick your question! — the answer to a question is much less important than deciding which questions to answer.”

The problem with being rewarded for dodging questions, of course, is that it is boring — and worse — it gives us substance-free candidates.

Santorum, who obviously feels deeply about his beliefs, could not bring himself to play the political game of parrying questions. It would have been unprincipled and cowardly to duck this sort of question, and instead talk about, say, jobs or his manufacturing plan.

Thus, he was lured into the debate. This may make him a very honorable person, but it’s also a political liability.

In any event, it is interesting that Santorum arguably won on debate points. His interlocutor made a strategic mistake by falling into the trap Santorum set — utilizing the Socratic method: Rather than dismissing the comparison as insulting, she confessed to being okay with polygamy (“…yeah, go for it,” she said, when pushed by Santorum.)

Some, of course, will view this as a red herring (“irrelevant” — as the crowd shouted). You might agree. But Santorum’s ultimate point was this: Since any standards restricting who may or may not be married could be perceived (by some) as arbitrary — or even discriminatory (who are we to say three loving adults can’t marry?) — the obvious conclusion is to have no standards.

The problem for Santorum, of course, is that this wasn’t a formal debate with a scorekeeper. In politics, emotion — not logic — usually dictates who wins. Out-debating (what appeared to be) an 18-year old girl is hardly endearing. And no matter how many points he scored, being booed by an audience is almost always bad optics.

In politics, there are moments, and this one this could have larger implications. If nothing else, this reinforces worries that a Santorum nomination would reignite the culture wars — something many establishment Republicans would just as soon avoid (especially when Obama is vulnerable on the economy).