Candidates say nutty things, but usually they’re accidental, unscripted remarks. No adviser or focus group ever suggested to Mitt Romney that he mention his wife’s two Cadillacs or bet Rick Perry $10,000. While those comments revealed Romney’s isolation from the realities of kitchen-table America, they were not part of his game plan.
But when Rick Santorum called President Obama a “snob” for wanting kids to go to college, he said it deliberately. In fact, he’s said it before -- in New Hampshire in early January -- so he can and should be held accountable for his words. And those words create sharp doubts about his qualifications for the presidency.
Even Republicans were appalled. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (who has endorsed Romney) said: “I wish he’d said it differently. When you look at what’s going on in other countries -- China, India, the premium they put on higher education -- we’ve got to do better if we still want to be the global leader that we are.”
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, no friend of Obama’s, said the president “has a good, strong message on education. In Arizona, we’re trying to implement the things he talked about.”
GOP strategist Ed Rogers, writing in The Washington Post, summed up: “I don’t think I have ever seen another candidate so mistakenly head in the opposite direction of where common sense should have compelled him to go.”
Santorum was actually making two separate points. The first was that college is not the only place to acquire useful work skills. “Not all folks are gifted in the same way,” he told a crowd in Troy, Mich. “Some people have incredible gifts with their hands.”
Fair enough, but Obama never demeaned those folks by praising the value of higher education. As the independent organization FactCheck.org reported, Santorum was “twisting Obama’s words.” The president never said that every youngster should attend Brown or Berkeley; he did say that in the modern economy, some form of advanced training is essential for success.
As the president told the National Governors Association this week: “When I speak about higher education, we’re not just talking about a four-year degree. We’re speaking about someone going to a community college and getting trained for that manufacturing job that is now requiring somebody walking through the door, handling a million-dollar piece of equipment. And they can’t go in there unless they’ve got some basic training beyond what they received in high school.”
That’s fact, not opinion, and it’s a fact for everyone, including young people who have “incredible gifts with their hands.” In January the Labor Department reported these unemployment rates: 13.1 percent for high school dropouts, 7.2 percent for those with just a high school degree, 4.2 percent for college grads. Last August, a Georgetown University study reported that a college degree was worth about $1 million in additional lifetime earnings.
Santorum’s life story contradicts his own comments. Yes, his grandfather was a coal miner, but his father was a clinical psychologist, and Santorum himself has graduate degrees in business and law. On his own website, Santorum boasted that he is “equally committed to ensuring that every Pennsylvanian has access to higher education.”
This history does not make Santorum a snob. It makes him a hypocrite, a pandering hypocrite who is trying to ignite a culture war for his own political advantage.
Santorum has a second beef with colleges, calling them “indoctrination mills” that preach liberal, secular values. We know (Steve has taught college for 20 years) that the prevailing environment on many campuses can make life hard for conservatives or believers. But parents and students have choices, and there are many fine faith-based schools in this country that reinforce traditional values.
More seriously, Santorum confuses college with youth. He likes to cite a study that found that more than 60 percent of young people “who enter college with a faith conviction leave without it.” He never says that the same study found that young people who don’t go to college lost their faith at a much higher rate.
The whole point of being young is to separate from parents, try out new ideas, question tradition, and shape individual identity and value systems. Any child who fails to go through that process can never become a complete adult. But Santorum seems blind to that fact. He even seems afraid of it. And no one should be president of this country who fears the future or our own children.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.