Politics

02.21.12

Righteous Rick Santorum Is His Own Worst Enemy

The current frontrunner’s backers complain that he’s being unfairly targeted with distracting gotcha questions, but he’s the one who put the spotlight on secondary issues like Obama’s theology, homeschooling, and prenatal testing.

Why is everybody suddenly picking on poor, misunderstood Rick Santorum?

Die-hard supporters of the former Pennsylvania senator insist that he’s received unjust, unmerited criticism from establishment insiders desperately determined to protect their favored candidates (presumably Barack Obama and Mitt Romney) from the sudden Santorum surge.

According to this line of reasoning, raging controversies over recent comments by Righteous Rick reflect persistent media bias, an outrageous effort to distract attention from the president’s economic failures, and a ruthless determination to destroy the one candidate best equipped to shake up the Washington status quo.

The most conspicuous example of such allegedly unfair treatment involved this Sunday’s Face the Nation, when CBS veteran Bob Schieffer concentrated solely on an oddly assorted array of Santorum remarks on seemingly irrelevant topics, allowing the sweater-vested conservative champion no chance for important or positive policy proposals.

For instance, the broadcast began with damning tape of the candidate telling a cheering weekend rally that for Obama, “It’s not about you. It’s not about your quality of life. It’s not about your jobs. It’s about some phony ideal, some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible, a different theology.”

Any conservatives who believe that Schieffer and CBS had no right to confront Santorum with these comments should try an uncomfortable thought experiment: Imagine that President Obama (or, far more conceivably, Vice President Biden) had assaulted Santorum himself, or one of the other GOP candidates, for basing his policies on “some phony theology.”

Would Republicans rightly react with profound indignation and demand an apology?

For Obama, of course, the issue of “phony theology” is particularly explosive due to previous criticism regarding his long association with the faith-based crackpot Jeremiah Wright, and frequent charges from the right-wing fringe that the Leader of the Free World is actually a secret Muslim. (In defending Santorum’s remarks on MSNBC, the former senator’s press spokeswoman even cited the president’s “radical Islamist policies” before she apologized.)

On Face the Nation Santorum reassured the public that “I accept the fact that the president is a Christian,” and he adamantly maintained that the “phony theology” crack only pertained to a “radical environmentalist … worldview” that he imputed to Obama. But if he accepted Obama’s Christian self-identification, then why would he use the term “theology,” while specifically insisting that the “phony” faith in question was non-Biblical and therefore non-Christian?

His off-the-reservation approaches to self-defeating diversions become legitimate, and wholly necessary, subjects for journalistic scrutiny.

Of course, Santorum would prefer to spend his precious moments on network TV talking about something else, but why then did he make the decision to use a raucous and very public campaign rally to raise the issue of “phony theology”?

The same question applies to the next subject raised on Face the Nation: Santorum’s claim at another Ohio campaign stop that an Obamacare mandate for free prenatal testing “ends up in more abortions and therefore less care that has to be done because we cull the ranks of the disabled in our society.”

His tortured response when asked to defend this idea in no way resulted from the sort of nasty “gotcha” question that Newt Gingrich passionately denounced earlier in the campaign. When Gingrich famously denounced CNN’s John King for beginning a televised debate with scurrilous charges from an angry ex-wife, most Republicans instinctively sympathized with the former speaker. Newt had never raised the issue of his second divorce (no candidate could be that stupid) and clearly preferred not to talk about it.

But if Santorum wanted to avoid the subject of prenatal testing, then why in the world did he bring it up on the stump just hours before his scheduled showdown on Face the Nation?

Instead of discussing aggrieved Catholic charities in the context of religious liberty and freedom of conscience (where many people of faith agree with the conservative critique of Obama policy), the candidate found himself struggling to make distinctions on details of prenatal testing—which nearly all prospective parents embrace in one form or another.

When questioned about his prior stumble into this medical and ethical thicket, Santorum could have easily affirmed that “I believe in complete freedom of choice when it comes to prenatal testing—no federal interference with doctors or parents who want to test unborn babies, and no federal policy to compel them to do so.” This declaration could have enabled the beleaguered candidate to turn to the far more legitimate issue of requiring religious charities to insure medical services (like sterilization) of which they disapproved and to again defend the principle of freedom of conscience.

Finally, Santorum’s gaggle of gaffes led him to an even more disastrous exchange on an even more unnecessary controversy: state (not federal!) support for public education. In speaking to a warmly supportive crowd at the Ohio Christian Alliance on Saturday, the candidate had explained that in the past “most presidents homeschooled their children in the White House ... Parents educated their children because it was their responsibility. Yes, the government can help but the idea that the federal government should be running schools, frankly, much less that the state government should be running schools, is anachronistic.”

This statement enabled hostile blogger Stephen D. Foster to run the misleading (and widely circulated) headline “Rick Santorum Calls for End of Public Education, Says Parents Should Home School Their Kids,” but on CBS the former senator did little to eliminate the confusion.

As I said before, first I’d get the federal government out,” he told Bob Schieffer and the nation, echoing a viewpoint that most conservatives share. But then Santorum launched an indefensible explanation of his previous dismissal of state government “running” public education. “I would, to the extent possible, with respect to mandates and designing curriculum and the like, I would get the state government out. I think that the parents should be in charge working with the local school district to try to design an educational environment for each child that optimizes their potential.”

No governor or legislature in the country would accept the principle of “getting the state government out”—not when state governments (not localities) pay the biggest share of the bills for public schools (which educate nearly 90 percent of all school-age children in America, according to the most recent figures).

Moreover, Santorum happens to be a candidate for president, not governor of Pennsylvania (a race he declined to make two years ago), so under the system of federalism that Republicans enthusiastically endorse, he should have nothing to say about “getting state government out” of educational issues. As Ron Paul (among many others) might helpfully instruct him, the president of the United States gets to make innumerable important decisions but under the 10th Amendment he can’t dictate state policies on education.

Santorum and his madly scrambling staff might claim that such criticism, and the tough questioning on Face the Nation, amount to nitpicking—mean-spirited efforts to distract and derail a nice-guy candidate who brings fresh perspectives to vexing public issues.

But on the verge of next week’s crucial primaries in Michigan and Arizona, Santorum isn’t just running a provocative “ideas campaign” like the indefatigable gadfly Ron Paul: present polling makes him the apparent frontrunner for the Republican nomination and an increasingly conceivable choice as president of the United States.

His off-the-reservation approaches to self-defeating diversions like Obama’s theology, prenatal testing, and state-level involvement in public education become legitimate, and wholly necessary, subjects for journalistic scrutiny.

For nearly six months, Santorum complained loudly in televised debates and elsewhere that his campaign received less media attention than it deserved. He can hardly object now when his own successes have made even his random campaign comments far more significant—and potentially devastating—than ever before.