Republicans ill at ease with the world around them

Harold Meyerson
Opinion Writer February 28, 2012

The longer the Republican presidential contest drags on, the more uncomfortable Mitt Romney seems around blue-collar Americans, and the more antagonistic Rick Santorum seems toward America’s professionals, current and aspiring, and their ideals. This does not portend Republican success in November. Romney’s victories in Arizona and Michigan on Tuesday do not alter this dynamic.

Romney’s stabs at seeming a regular guy have provided the most painful moments of his campaign. How to come off as a car buff in Michigan? Mention your wife’s Cadillacs. How to be a good ol’ boy at Daytona? Say you’re friends with some of the race car owners. Not since Richard Nixon has a national political leader appeared so excruciatingly ill at ease with the simplest public encounters.

Harold Meyerson writes a weekly political column that appears on Thursdays and contributes to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

The roots of Romney’s awkwardness are shrouded in mystery. Perhaps, while going door to door in France in quest of converts to Mormonism, he came to believe that encounters with ordinary folks were an ordeal with which God tests the faithful. Certainly, his career in private equity did nothing to prepare him for conversations with actual workers. A good leveraged-buyout operator — and Romney was one of the best — doesn’t sit down with workers to hear their concerns, lest he end up heeding any interest save those of the bottom line. Whatever the reason, Romney’s encounters with ordinary men and women seem fraught with peril and grow steadily more surreal.

Santorum, by contrast, seems comfortable only with ordinary guys, provided “ordinary” is defined as white, working-class, traditional, patriarchal, borderline theocratic and seething with resentment at everyone except the rich. Santorum is the latest right-wing demagogue who rails at the real and imagined sins of liberal cultural elites (joining Joseph McCarthy, George Wallace and Spiro Agnew, to name but a few), but in his zeal to damage Romney in Michigan, he has more effectively damaged himself throughout professional America.

Not since McCarthy decided to attack the U.S. Army for allegedly coddling communists has a reactionary populist been so wide of the mark as Santorum was in attacking President Obama as a “snob” for saying he would like more young people to go to college. “There are good, decent men and women who go out and work hard every day and put their skills to [the] test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor to try to indoctrinate them,” Santorum said this weekend. “I understand why [Obama] wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image.”

Of course, Obama never said that every young American should go to a four-year, liberal arts college. His point, rather, was that productive jobs in today’s blue-collar economy ask more of workers than they used to. “We are talking about somebody going to a community college and getting trained for that manufacturing job that is now requiring someone walking through the door [to handle] a million-dollar piece of equipment,” the president elaborated Monday. That’s not liberal snobbery; it’s the common sense of plant managers, foremen and factory-floor workers.

But Santorum wanted to paint Obama as just another liberal academic — albeit the most dangerous one — a lefty pied piper leading America’s children astray. (Never mind that Charles Murray’s new book, which Santorum has admiringly cited, shows that marriage and births in wedlock are vanishing from blue-collar America but are still going strong among college grads.) In disparaging college itself, however, as an institution and an aspirational ideal, Santorum rattled the foundations of much more than American liberalism. In cities and towns across the country, professional and managerial associations are dominated by Republicans who were instructed in, credentialed by and remain loyal to their colleges. They form the traditional base of the Republican Party, and many of them must wonder what brave new world Santorum speaks from and to.

The longer the campaign drags on, the more Santorum reveals his real self, astonishing millions of Americans with the intensity of his war on modernity. We now know that Santorum is not one to put much stock in schools, whether K-12 (he’s a home-schooler) or college. He doesn’t put much stock in science, as his denial of global warming attests. He is nauseated by John Kennedy’s affirmation of the need to separate church and state. His is a world where faith trumps empiricism, where book learnin’ inspires a certain contempt, where the attainment of knowledge comes with an unacceptable Faustian risk or, at minimum, a heavy dose of snootiness.

Santorum’s message may get Rush Limbaugh listeners to the polls, but it is a disaster in upscale Republican and independent suburbs. Just as Romney can’t relate to blue-collar Americans, Santorum can’t, or won’t, relate to professionals. And the Republicans’ class war rolls on.

meyersonh@washpost.com

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