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Santorum’s reverse snobbery

Posted: March 2, 2012 9:56 a.m.
Updated: March 5, 2012 5:00 a.m.

Who would have guessed that President Barack Obama's call for more college opportunities was secretly a liberal indoctrination plot?

Who would interpret President John F. Kennedy's eloquent 1960 plea for religious tolerance in the public square as a call to shut religious voices out of the public square?

Welcome to the weird world of Rick Santorum, the latest challenger to rise to the top of the Anybody-But-Mitt-Romney side of the Republican presidential race.

The former Pennsylvania senator had a golden opportunity to put his new prominence to good use, after he beat frontrunner Mitt Romney in the Iowa, Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado contests. He could have used the moment to reintroduce himself to skeptical voters as Ronald Reagan did in 1980 -- as a sensible conservative voice, a good-humored and statesmanlike leader who could unify his party more effectively than the more moderate former Massachusetts Gov. Romney has been able to do.

But, no, Santorum dug in deeper as a culture warrior, appealing mainly to those who already supported him and displaying the intemperance of a man who seemed determined to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory.

"President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college," he told the conservative Americans for Prosperity in Michigan last weekend. "What a snob."

The line brought predictable laughs and applause but, if facts still matter, Santorum's punch line relied on a misquote. Although the president has urged Americans to pursue some schooling or vocational training beyond a high school degree, he has not said that he wants everyone to go to college.

In February 2009, for example, Obama said in his first address to a joint session of Congress, "I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. This can be community college or a four-year school, vocational training or an apprenticeship. But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma."

That's sensible. A recent Census Bureau report on education and earnings, finds that high school graduates can expect on average to earn $1.2 million over their lifetime, compared to $2.1 million for those with a bachelor's degree and $2.5 million for those with a master's degree. The need for American workers to compete in a global labor marketplace is an issue that transcends party lines. Or, at least, it should.

Besides, if anyone knows the value of a college degree, it is Santorum. He has three of them himself -- a BA from Penn State, an MBA from the University of Pittsburgh and a JD from Dickinson Law School.

But Santorum wasn't about to let mere facts get in the way of his reverse-snobbery or his conspiracy theories: "Oh, I understand why he wants you to go to college," Santorum said. "He wants to remake you in his image. I want to create jobs so people can remake their children into their image, not his."

Obama wants to create jobs, too, as he repeated Monday to a National Governors Association meeting in Washington, without mentioning Santorum's name.

Obama is not the only president Santorum misinterprets. He also defended to Stephanopoulos his reaction in October to John F. Kennedy's 1960 speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. That historic plea for religious tolerance when Kennedy's Catholicism was under attack, says Santorum, who also is a Catholic, made him want to "throw up."

"To say that people of faith have no role in the public square?" Santorum told Stephanopoulos. "You bet that makes you throw up. What kind of country do we live that says only people of non-faith can come into the public square and make their case?"

No, Kennedy did not want only "people of non-faith" in the public square. He did say, among other valuable points, that government should not show preferences for any religion and that churches should not tell parishioners how to vote.

The wall of separation, in other words, protects each side from the excesses of the other. Santorum would have won more support if he had taken that stance. But he disagrees with it. "I don't believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute," he said. His supporters cheer him on. But the more I hear Santorum talk, the more I believe Kennedy was right.

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