Rick Santorum’s reporter comment and the leadership dilemma of the modern campaign


(Whitney Curtis/GETTY IMAGES)

Rick Santorum, in case you missed it, got angry at a New York Times reporter Sunday, cursing at him and saying the reporter was “lying” when he asked a question. Depending on your perspective, the outburst was a sign that Santorum’s ornery ways are back, a symptom of the pressure that’s setting in as Mitt Romney looks increasingly likely to win the GOP nod, or, in Sarah Palin’s words, illustrative of Santorum’s strong character.

One thing it was not, however, was the sort of response most people expect from someone who holds the job that Santorum is trying to get. Many people can forgive a candidate wrestling with the intense spotlight of a presidential campaign a momentary loss of cool. But Santorum not only seemed to prolong the encounter (he continued to turn back and call out to the reporter, Jeff Zeleny, as he headed down the rope line), he later emailed his supporters saying he’s “ready to take on the New York Times.”

We may each want our political flag bearers to stand up for what they believe and stand firm when they think reporters are twisting their words. (Zeleny asked Santorum: “You said Mitt Romney is the worst Republican in the country. Is that true?” Santorum had said in a speech, “He is the worst Republican in the country to put up against Barack Obama.” The context, reportedly, was health care.) But while Santorum’s comments might be galvanizing to his supporters, to undecided voters it probably wasn’t the most presidential of moments.

The episode illustrates one of the leadership dilemmas of the modern campaign: It’s not just the stump speeches and policy emphases that seem to morph (or get shaken through an etch-a-sketch) from the primary to the general election. The leadership styles and attributes that primary voters look for in a candidate vying for the nomination aren’t necessarily the same as the ones the general electorate looks for when it comes time to vote in November. In one, the fighter gets credit; in the other, a more statesmanlike demeanor is expected.

There is a way Santorum could have displayed both qualities, of course. He could have responded calmly but firmly to the reporter that he felt the question wasn’t fair, and then taken time to explain the context of his words while the cameras were rolling. Instead, in the heat of the moment during a pressure-filled campaign, he responded with an emotional outburst and an expletive that—he surely noticed—made far more headlines than any reasoned response ever would have. It’s hard to know whether or not Santorum’s angry comments will hurt him or just be another campaign episode that’s long forgotten. One thing, however, is certain: The pressures he faces on the presidential campaign trail are nothing compared to those he would face were he to hold the office itself.

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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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