Politics & Policy

Santorum: The Anti-Snob

The former senator makes his blue-collar pitch.

 

‘What is up with this guy? Why does he go down one stupid rabbit trail after another?” That was Joe Scarborough’s question on Tuesday’s Morning Joe. He and other MSNBC pundits were incredulous about Rick Santorum, who recently called President Obama a “snob” who “wants everybody to go to college.” On the Daily Show the previous night, comedian Jon Stewart was similarly shocked. “You’re against people educating their kids because it’s fancy?” he wondered.

But on the campaign trail, Santorum’s “snob” comment drew cheers from Republican primary voters. “It resonates,” says former Colorado congresswoman Marilyn Musgrave.

#ad#Musgrave, who works for the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, traveled to small Michigan towns this week on a pro-Santorum bus tour. At every stop, she says, Santorum’s pugnacious rhetoric was embraced by Rust Belt conservatives.

“The last I checked, about a third of the people in this country have a college degree,” Musgrave says. Santorum’s remark, she says, connects with voters who are skeptical of Obama’s emphasis on higher education, which is a costly endeavor for many families and unnecessary for many workers.

“[Santorum] recognizes that people want to be valued whether they have a college education or not,” she says. “Just try to imagine your life without your plumber or your mechanic.”

John Brabender, Santorum’s senior adviser, agrees. And he shrugs off the media’s criticism. Brabender has guided Santorum’s political campaigns since 1990. In every race, he says, connecting Santorum’s working-class roots to the broader national narrative was instrumental to victory. Tough words for the president, he says, are part of the strategy.

“The reason people were offended by Obama’s remark is that it’s part of what bothers people about him,” Brabender says. “The president was saying that, okay, he’s already picked your health care and now he’s going to pick your career path.”

When Brabender and Santorum heard Obama heap praise upon the benefits of college, they saw an opening to frame the pro-manufacturing theme of their campaign as a broader critique of the president. In other words, the “snob” versus the blue-collar families that lack “establishment” credentials.

“Our argument is, look, if you want to go to college, that’s a great thing. We should help them and make sure that when they get out of college, they have opportunities,” Brabender says. “But there are people who will have other options. That’s what this country is about — the freedom to do what you think is best for yourself. If college isn’t for you, and you want to go into a trade or into the military, you should be encouraged.”

Santorum echoes that message on the stump. “Not all folks are gifted in the same way,” he told a Michigan crowd this week. “There are good decent men and women who go out and work hard every day and put their skills to the test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor trying to indoctrinate them.” He then praised those who work “with their hands.”

#page#

When asked about Santorum’s line on Monday, White House press secretary Jay Carney gave a chilly response. “I don’t think any parent in America who has a child would think it snobbery to hope for that child to get the best possible education in the future and that includes college,” he said.

Some conservative observers express similar doubts about Santorum’s strategy. Several GOP officials, especially those who support Mitt Romney, have distanced themselves from the Pennsylvania Republican’s comments. The candidate may be able to rally certain blocs of the GOP base with anti-college barbs, but there is a worry that it may not play as well to a general-election audience. “I’m a little mixed about it,” says Jeffrey Bell, a former aide to Ronald Reagan.

#ad#Bell, the author of Populism and Elitism (1992) and more recently The Case for Polarized Politics (2012), says he understands “what Santorum was going for.” Obama, he says, “is seen as a snob by many people and Santorum gets that.”

But he cautions that the approach may not be a complete political winner. “Just because you haven’t gone to college doesn’t mean that you have something against those who have a college degree,” Bell says. “Many of those who haven’t gone to college, or those who didn’t complete their degree, are aspirational about sending their own children to college.”

Brabender acknowledges that Santorum’s jibes may not be warmly received by reporters or by every voter. But he does not expect Santorum to back away from calling Obama a snob or touting the benefits of growing the economy in ways that do not revolve around academic credentials.

“What Obama and Romney do not understand is that there is a lot of passion and anger out there,” Brabender says. “There is a sense that our basic freedoms are being destroyed. People are gravitating around somebody who is not shy, who stands up and says what they really believe.”

Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.

Robert Costa — Robert Costa is National Review's Washington editor and a CNBC political analyst. He manages NR's Capitol Hill bureau and covers the White House, Congress, and national campaigns. ...

Most Popular

U.S.

The Inquisitor Has No Clothes

This is a column about impeachment, but first, a confession: I think I might be guilty of insider trading. At this point, I would like to assure my dear friends at the SEC that I do not mean this in any actionable legal sense, but only in principle. Some time ago, I was considering making an investment in a ... Read More