Where the debates were concerned, meanwhile, I would give the edge to Santorum. This was a campaign in which individual debate moments mattered, but what really mattered was being consistently solid in performance after performance, — and again, nothing we’ve seen from Palin post-2008 suggests that she would have had the discipline or briefing-book mastery necessary to impress week after week. Santorum, on the other hand, was dogged and disciplined and detail-oriented (even, alas, when the details involved the Cuban-Venezuelan-Bolivian “threat” [bold mine-DL]), which paid dividends for him over the long haul that the debate calendar became. The debates made him seem a more plausible contender; there’s no reason to think they would have the same impact for Palin, and some reason to suspect the reverse.
I don’t have good things to say about Santorum very often, but I will admit that he was one of the more competent challengers Romney faced in this contest. I wrongly assumed that his campaign would be completely hopeless because of its lack of resources and organization, and I underestimated how much support Santorum would be able to get before voters became more familiar with him. As Ross hints, Santorum was a strong ideologue, which was an important part of what made it so hard to imagine him as the nominee, but it was because he was an ideologue that he could present well-rehearsed arguments that were usually well-received by equally ideological voters. This imposed a limit on how much support he could expect to receive, but it enabled him to mobilize a large number of voters with little more than an appeal to being a conviction candidate. The flaws of Santorum’s presidential bid were much the same as the flaws of his failed re-election bid in 2006, and chief among these was his refusal to alter his view of an issue regardless of the evidence. Especially on foreign policy, much of what Santorum believes and claims to know is wrong, but there is no question that he believes it. To take just one example, one of the things that made his foreign policy arguments so worrisome was that he seemed genuinely convinced of the Venezuelan menace. Palin could have recited the talking points that Santorum used, but the assumption that she was just saying what she had been told to say by advisers would be widely held.
Palin would have been just as flawed a candidate as many of the others that flamed out late last year. If Santorum was one of the more competent challengers, Palin would have been among the least. Unlike 2008, her mistakes would not have been explained away by sympathetic partisan team players, and her ignorance of relevant policy matters would have exposed her to ridicule from conservative media outlets, which would have no incentive to avoid criticizing her. If she had been in the GOP debates, the other candidates would have been competing to discredit her as the alternative to Romney, which would have subjected her to a level of scrutiny and questioning that she has largely avoided since 2008. Romney wouldn’t have needed to point out her lack of preparation, and he could have left it to the other candidates to take the risks associated with criticizing her. Had she run, Palin would have imploded last summer or fall as so many of the unqualified and demagogic candidates did.