Commentary Magazine


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Rick Santorum, Culture Warrior

Rick Santorum has been given the gift of using vivid language to make his points. For example, at a Tea Party event in Troy, Michigan, Santorum said, “President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob!” He described the purpose of college as “indoctrination.” Santorum added, “Oh, I understand why [Obama] wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image.”

If going after the current Democratic president wasn’t enough, Santorum decided to take on an iconic one from a half-century ago. In describing his reaction to John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, Santorum repeated a statement he made in the past. Kennedy’s speech, Santorum said, made him want to “throw up.”

In the last several days, Santorum has also asserted that Mitt Romney is “in bed with Barack Obama on destroying these vital mediating institutions of our society by starving them of money from the very people that keep these organizations alive and well in our society.”

The connecting thread to this rhetoric is intemperance. Even arguments that have a germ of truth to them — such as college is not for everybody – is framed in language that is immoderate and wildly overstated. And why Santorum would double down on his fight with JFK rather than easily pivoting out of it tells you quite a lot. (Ronald Reagan, during his presidency, had nothing but praise for Kennedy.)

Senator Santorum is a smart and experienced man; he doesn’t need to resort to rhetoric that simply reinforces the impression he’s a deeply polarizing and strident figure. He seems to be reflexively drawn to these fights, much like Pat Buchanan was. The effect of this is to put people, even those somewhat sympathetic to Santorum’s views, on edge.

There are a lot of ways for Republicans to run against Barack Obama; coming off as anti-college and anti-Kennedy isn’t one of them.