Politics

02.28.12

Rick Santorum’s Class-Based Pitch Kicks Up Campaign Controversy

By painting higher education as liberal and elitist, the candidate is making a blatant grab for blue-collar voters. Howard Kurtz on how that could affect Tuesday’s Michigan and Arizona primaries.

First he talked about birth control, then prenatal testing, then separation of church and state. Now Rick Santorum is taking aim at college.

This might turn out to be a shrewd strategy to mobilize his religious and conservative base in Tuesday’s primaries in Michigan and Arizona. But at the moment, it just seems rather strange.

The Santorum camp may well be targeting non-college-educated voters who resent the success of the elites. After all, Mitt Romney, he whose wife drives a couple of Cadillacs, used a visit to NASCAR to try to relate to blue-collar types—and promptly announced that he’s not an ardent fan but is friends with some team owners.

But does it really make political sense for Santorum to call President Obama a “snob” for saying everyone should have a chance to go to college? Will that line have particular resonance in Michigan, where the auto assembly line is no longer a guaranteed ticket to the middle class and whose voters are well aware that Santorum, as well as Romney, opposed the GM/Chrysler bailout?

If Santorum pulls out a win in Michigan, the pundits will credit his culture-war strategy. (The polls show a margin-of-error cliffhanger in Michigan but suggest Romney will win big in Arizona, where Santorum has barely campaigned.)

It is hard to overstate the psychological impact if Romney loses his home state, which under normal circumstances should be a cakewalk. The murmur of doubts about Romney as the GOP’s standard bearer will grow deafening.

But is Santorum’s rather blatant appeal to evangelical and lower-class voters a sustainable approach—or a divisive and self-destructive one?

In sparking a debate about the usefulness of college, Santorum starts with a reasonable argument: there are “good, decent men and women” without college degrees who work hard every day. I doubt Barack Obama would disagree with that.

Santorum also complains about “some liberal college professor … trying to indoctrinate” students. All right, the notion of academia as a hotbed of left-wing activism has been a right-wing shibboleth since the 1960s, and conservatives are clearly outnumbered in faculty lounges.

But Santorum goes a giant step further in calling the president a “snob” and arguing that Obama “wants you to go to college” because “he wants to remake you in his image.” So now, in his telling, a college education is a liberal plot presided over by a big-government president trying to brainwash America’s youth.

Maybe that’s a trifecta, appealing to people who don’t like Obama, don’t like that they’re toiling for lower wages, and resent what George Wallace used to deride as “pointy-headed intellectuals.” (Never mind that Santorum has a B.A., an M.B.A., and a law degree.)

But lots of other folks have got to be asking: huh? Doesn’t every study show that a college degree means a lifetime of higher earnings? Shouldn’t we be encouraging people to go to college, or at least make sure they have the opportunity?

Asked about this on Meet the Press, Santorum said that “if going to a trade school and, and learning to be a carpenter or a plumber or, or, or other types of, other types of skills that are—or an artist or whatever the case may be, or, or musician, all of those things are, are very important and worthwhile professions that we should not look down our nose at and say they’re somehow less because you didn’t get a four-year college degree.”

Agreed. But would any practicing politician argue with that?

Factually, Santorum is off base in saying Obama wants everyone to go to college—which is why Politifact labeled his claim “false.”

Is Santorum’s rather blatant appeal to evangelical and lower-class voters a sustainable approach—or a divisive and self-destructive one?

The closest the president came to making such a claim was in a 2009 Parade magazine letter to his daughters: “I want all our children to go to schools worthy of their potential.” But he also said, “I want them to have the chance to go to college—even if their parents aren’t rich.” "Chance" seems to be the key word.

Obama said in a speech last week: “When kids graduate, I want them to be able to afford to go to college. If they’ve been working hard, if they’ve gotten the grades to go to college, I don’t want them to cut their dreams short because they don’t think they can afford it.” Here again he’s talking about opportunity.

Such details tend to get lost in the fog of campaign rhetoric. By narrowcasting to blue-collar audiences, by playing on the politics of resentment, by preaching about his Catholic faith, Santorum is seeking to distinguish himself from Romney, the Bain Capital man with multiple houses. And the name of the game in primaries is turning out your base.

The results in Michigan will be a turning point. If Mitt wins the state where his father was governor, he will have, at least temporarily, stopped the Santorum surge. If Rick pulls off an upset, there will be many explanations, from his dogged, down-to-earth style to Romney’s inability to seal the deal. But it will also be a textbook lesson in the politics of education.