Ross Douthat makes a lot of sense in his post where he argues that Santorum is first-rate on many important social policy questions but seems to be frustratingly stubborn in acknowledging foreign policy failure when he sees it.  In his own words:

Unlike David Brooks, I like Santorum for his willingness to make actual anti-poverty proposals and his culture-war positions; if we were starting our political parties from scratch, I’d want a lot of people with Santorum’s cluster of views on domestic policy in my camp. Yet he makes himself awfully hard to root for even so. Not only because his tendency toward slashing, tone-deaf rhetoric (that “man-on-dog” business being only the most obvious example) plays into every stereotype of social conservatives as sanctimonious prigs, but because he’s decided to make his re-election campaign be all about speeches like this one and this one, in which Hugo Chavez’s air force and Ahmadinejad’s new Caliphate and the Cuba-China axis of oil-drilling are all out “to conquer the world,” and the only solution is a Ledeenian-style campaign of “political and economic warfare” to take down Iran and Syria and Venezuela and Cuba from within. As Daniel Larison puts it, “Santorum has decided that he is going to pretend to be Churchill in his latter years, politically rejected but supposedly far-seeing and wise on matters of foreign policy.” I suppose it’s possible that he’ll be vindicated a decade or a century hence, when historians will look back and say, yes, “our survival as a free people” was indeed at stake in the Pennsylvania Senate campaign of 2006. But it seems more likely that his “gathering storm” speeches will ensure that he’s remembered not as a principled social conservative who lost his swing-state seat in a bad year for Republicans, but as exhibit A (well, okay, more like P or W) in the depressing tendency of conservatives, faced with the Bush Administration’s manifest failure in Iraq, to duck that issue by pretending that the way to solve it is to start some variant on World War III, or IV, or whatever numeral the “faster, please” folks think we’re on these days.

One of the commenters on Ross’ post made an interesting remark that caught my attention:

Maybe its because they agree with Santorum. The idea that only hacks or shills believe everything Santorum is saying is true is nonsense. We admire a man who will not trim his sails.

This makes a certain amount of sense.  Of course there are people who agree with Santorum’s wild-eyed predictions of Iranian world-mastery–the question for Santorum and these people always has to be: why would you, evidently smart and sophisticated people, fall for an idea so manifestly absurd?  It is perhaps for this reason that some people have a hard time maintaining respect for Santorum boosters as both intellectually savvy and intellectually honest–you can agree with Santorum’s diagnosis of Middle Eastern political problems, but you can hardly do so while retaining a reputation for a close acquaintance with reality.  Thus the (false) conclusion that Santorum boosters must be hacks of some sort.  No, not hacks, but just deeply and profoundly mistaken about foreign policy, as Santorum is, and as they have been for several years. 

But the commenter got me to thinking about the metaphor of the political trimmer who adjusts to favourable winds.  There is an obvious sense in which we do not want political trimmers who are absolutely unprincipled and who chart their political course according to the latest, trendy thing.  That way lies Blairism, triangulation and all of the absurdities and failures these bring with them.  But there is another sense, if we take the sailing metaphor seriously, in which someone who never trims his sails and who never strikes his sails (say, for example, in a violent, raging storm) is a very, very bad sailor.  He may be brave, clear-eyed and deeply convinced that maintaining full sails in a treacherous windstorm is the right thing to do, but he is an incompetent sailor on whose boat no sane person would want to be.  It is one thing to take matters of high principle very seriously and refuse to compromise on those.  There are some things connected to first principles that a man should be willing to sacrifice himself for, politically or even unto the point of giving his life, and then there is the option of grandstanding on a massively unpopular cause that it is unpopular because it is rather mad and declaring that you are being heroic for taking up such a cause.  It is one thing to want to go down with the ship of pro-life advocacy, but Santorum is not losing because of his virtues but clearly because of his flaws, starting with his combative and exaggerated style.  Going down with the ship if you must can be noble, but it is something else all together to lash yourself to the deck of the sinking ship of a bungled war (all the while talking belligerently about how subverting other governments is brilliant) and declare everyone who refuses to drown alongside you to be cowards and abettors of terrorism.  Don’t be surprised if the “crew” believes you to be as mad as Ahab and as undesirable a captain as Queeg.