Rick Santorum and the ‘snob’ comment: Why anti-college rhetoric is the wrong anti-Obama tactic

February 27, 2012

Rick Santorum has made several comments during campaign stops in Michigan before the state’s primary that have been generating buzz. (Joe Raedle/GETTY IMAGES)

We have now reached the once unthinkable point in this presidential race where even higher education has come up for debate. At a time when our global competitors are churning out engineers and scientists at a faster and faster rate; at a time when the industries of the future require not only a college education, but more and more advanced degrees; and at a time when the economy is becoming more demanding of innovation than ever before, one of the leading candidates for the GOP nomination calls the president a “snob” for wanting “everybody in America to go to college.” Really?

The comment is all the more inexplicable not just for how out of touch it seems with today’s economy, but for its application to a president who has been a major cheerleader for community colleges and trade schools. In his recent State of the Union speech, Obama praised partnerships between manufacturing companies and community colleges who have been retraining workers in practical fields like robotics. The president did not say college was something everyone should do; rather, he said it is an “economic imperative” that “every family in America should be able to afford.” The wife of his vice president has even made community colleges one of her key platforms.

What’s even more confounding about Santorum’s comments is that he did not need to make them. As Peter Wehner points out over at Commentary, there is an element of truth in what he said—college is not for everyone. But Santorum chose to use overheated and overstated language that goes beyond what most voters need to hear to be convinced he is not like the “snobby” president or, for that matter, his very wealthy GOP opponent. Just like Romney can’t seem to help himself from saying things that are meant to sound populist but come off as elitist (this weekend’s NASCAR comment was one of my favorites), Santorum can’t seem to help himself from saying things designed to sound bold or courageous but that come off as outlandish.

It’s certainly possible Santorum’s comments in Michigan, a state proud of its working-class roots, may help him rally voters looking for the candidate who’s offering up the most anti-Obama rhetoric. But it hardly makes him look like a leader creating an aspirational vision of a better tomorrow. A college education is no longer just a warm and fuzzy part of the American Dream. In today’s world, the cold reality is that having more and more well-educated scientists, engineers and mathematicians is the only way for this country to compete.

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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