Wherever things go from here, presidential candidate Rick Santorum has a lot to be proud of. With a campaign made of shoe leather and elbow grease, he survived to become the last serious alternative to Mitt Romney in the 2012 GOP primary – an outcome few observes would have predicted at the beginning of the race, when Santorum was huddled in a tiny corner of the debate stage, surrounded by thirty or forty other contestants.
Santorum prospered despite a willingness to discuss social issues, which conventional wisdom assured us were poisonous in this economy-focused election. Some felt this made him too easily distracted, a liability that would become especially apparent during the general election. Santorum countered by saying the election has to be about something broader, and deeper, than a handful of economic statistics.
This led to a statement on Monday that was promptly condemned as a fatal gaffe, particularly by Mitt Romney and his campaign team. As reported by National Journal:
“We need a candidate who’s going to be a fighter for freedom. Who’s going to get up and make that the central theme in this race because it is the central theme in this race,” Santorum told a crowd of about 200 voters during a rally here on Monday. “I don’t care what the unemployment rate’s going to be. Doesn’t matter to me. My campaign doesn’t hinge on unemployment rates and growth rates. It’s something more foundational that’s going on.”
Emphasis mine, although you probably didn’t need it to guess which line would be plucked out of context and widely quoted. The Romney campaign immediately commenced plucking:
“Wow. Sen. Santorum may not care about the unemployment rate in this country or the nearly 24 million Americans struggling for work, but Mitt Romney does and is running to get people back to work,” [Romney spokeswoman Andrea] Saul said. “If anyone needed evidence that Rick Santorum is an economic lightweight, they needn’t look any further than his various statements today. We’re not going to turn around this economy by replacing one former senator with zero job-creating experience with another senator with zero job-creating experience. He has proven it once again,” she wrote.
Romney himself, in a subsequent appearance at Bradley University, reaffirmed his concern for unemployment.
“One of the people who is running also for the Republican nomination today said that he doesn’t care about the unemployment rate; that does bother me,” Romney said. “I do care about the unemployment rate. It does bother me. I want to get people back to work.”
Given that Romney himself was unfairly excoriated for a line taken completely out of context, just a couple of months ago – “I like being able to fire people” – one might have hoped for a slightly more thoughtful response. Santorum was making the same case he has advanced throughout his campaign: economic and social issues are both important. In fact, they are related. Willfully misinterpreting his comments as meaning “I don’t give a rat’s rear end whether people are unemployed or not!” is profoundly unfair.
Of course, the Republican candidate can expect much profound unfairness from the media during the general election, and really ought to avoid stringing together sentences like “I don’t care what the unemployment rate’s going to be,” regardless of context. No such margin of error will be permitted in the months ahead. The candidate running against Obama can’t afford to spend half the campaign playing defense and dodging shrapnel from exploding sound bites.
At the beginning of his campaign, Newt Gingrich decried “right-wing social engineering,” by which he meant implementing reforms that would change peoples’ lives, without giving them a menu of options to choose from. He was talking about Rep. Paul Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” budget and its Medicare reforms, but if he were running hard against Santorum, Gingrich might well level the same criticism against his ideas for using government reforms to reinforce the moral and ethical character of the populace – or, more to the point, terminating policies that degrade human character.
The other side is quite eager to perform social engineering through compulsion. The ObamaCare war against the Catholic Church is merely the latest example. For another, consider the recently-discovered video of now-Attorney General Eric Holder in 1995, advocating what he described as “brainwashing” techniques to advance his gun-control agenda, pointedly including the forced political indoctrination of students in public schools.
The Left is already playing the kind of game Rick Santorum was talking about. Their objectives go far beyond controlling a few economic metrics. In fact, the Obama re-election campaign is all about controlling the damage from economic failure, so that he can survive to continue the really important work of “transforming” the public. He has a decent chance of succeeding, and if he does, the relationship between Americans and their government will have been transformed forever.
Take Santorum’s unfortunate quote and turn it around: Barack Obama really doesn’t care what the unemployment rate is going to be, how high the national debt grows, or how much the economy slows down. He currently pays attention to those things only because they are jeopardizing his re-election. His objective is to endure the political fallout from economic damage caused by the agenda he really cares about.
In earlier, fitful flashes of honesty, Obama was heard to remark that Americans would have to deal with higher energy costs, and other economic disruptions, during their transformation into a more organized, centralized, micro-managed, and sustainable nation. He’s dedicated to the proposition that government power can transform the people in a permanent fashion, which will ultimately make it impossible for liberty-minded reformers to gather enough public support for their ideas.
However poorly his words might have been chosen, it seems to me that Rick Santorum is more aware of the long game, and the stakes, than Mitt Romney. On the campaign trail in Illinois, Romney was told by a heckler, “So you’re all for like, ‘yay, freedom’ and all this stuff. And ‘yay, like pursuit of happiness.’ You know what would make me happy? Free birth control!”
Romney’s response was, “If you’re looking for free stuff you don’t have to pay for, vote for the other guy. That’s what he’s all about, okay? That’s not what I’m about.”
Wouldn’t it be better to explain that there is no such thing as “free stuff,” no matter who you vote for? Obama’s not just about buying votes with taxpayer-funded trinkets. He’s working to expand dependency into the middle class, on a massive scale, by convincing them to insist on a “positive right” to compulsory birth control, which utterly transcends the formerly inalienable property and religious rights of others.
This campaign needs grand slams, not base hits. Santorum swings at some pitches he should pass up, but at least he’s always swinging for the fences.