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Santorum and the Danger of Becoming the Grievance Candidate

At various times throughout the presidential campaign, Rick Santorum has shown himself to be impressive: articulate, forceful, passionate, and a fine, and at times an outstanding, debater. But there are other times when he’s simply off-key. One example is his silly statement that “I’ve always believed that when you run for president of the United States, it should be illegal to read off a teleprompter, because all you’re doing is reading someone else’s words to people.” My former White House colleague Michael Gerson systematically blows apart Santorum’s argument in his Washington Post column today.

One might think that Santorum’s forays into the land of spontaneous and unfiltered comments — about John F. Kennedy’s 1960 Houston Ministerial Association speech (which Santorum said wanted to make him vomit), on Barack Obama’s effort to encourage more people to go to college (Santorum said Obama was a “snob”) and on contraception (which he considers a grave threat to the Republic and is an issue he promised to talk about if he became president) — would make Rick a little more appreciative of the virtues of carefully crafted speeches and a little less contemptuous of the speechwriting process. But apparently not. For what it’s worth, in my stints as a speechwriter – including for then-Secretary of Education William Bennett and President George W. Bush in 2001 and 2002 – the principals were heavily involved from beginning to end, from the conception of a speech to the editing process. And of course during his political career, I would wager a good deal of money that Santorum has had people draft speeches for him; and he might even have read them from, say, the floor of the Senate.

Then there is Santorum’s comments on the “Kilmeade & Friends” radio program on Fox News Radio, in which Santorum said about Mitt Romney: “The man has had a 10-to-1 money advantage. He’s had all the organizational advantage. He’s had Fox News shilling for him every day, no offense Brian but I see it. And yet, he can’t close — he can’t seal the deal because he just doesn’t have the goods to be able to motivate the Republican base and win this election.”

I gather that Santorum’s “shilling” comments were based on the commentary of Dick Morris, who likes Santorum but – in the aftermath of Super Tuesday – believes GOP voters should vote for Romney in order to shorten the primary. I happen to disagree with Morris; I think Republicans should cast their vote for the person they believe would be the best president and has the best chance to win. But the notion that Fox News is “shilling” for Romney is just not credible. There are plenty of commentators and hosts who have said favorable things about the former Pennsylvania senator. Worse, Santorum – whom I know and respect – is beginning to sound prickly and exasperated.

As a general matter, I try to take into account the grueling nature of a presidential campaign and how easy it is to make verbal mistakes. All of us would stumble on the presidential stage, and everyone deserves a break now and then, including Santorum. He’s clearly helped himself during the arc of this campaign. And when he’s good, he’s quite good. But Santorum also needs to be careful, to show more discipline and more nuance in his comments. And he has to check his abrasiveness and bristling responses. We’ve seen how a powerful sense of grievance consumed other prominent Republican figures in recent years; Rick Santorum shouldn’t go down that same path.

 


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