Rick Santorum had quite an awful day yesterday. First, his “I don’t care about the unemployment rate” line is likely to come back to haunt him for the rest of the race. Almost as bad, he confessed in a radio interview, “No. I never did go to Afghanistan. As you said, I spent eight years on the Armed Services Committee. And I did repeatedly get involved in a whole variety of foreign policy pieces of legislation that I authored. One was on Iran and the other on Syria. Those were two major bills that actually I authored that were successful in getting passed.” Thunk.
That wasn’t as bad as yet another interview, this later one on the Steve Cochran Show on WIND-AM in Chicago, in which Santorum seemed oblivious to how cloistered his career has apparently been. An extract:
HOST: “Now I know as part of the Armed Services Committee you must have been to Afghanistan a number of times.”
SANTORUM: “Actually, I was a member of the Armed Services Committee before 9/11. I got off the Armed Services Committee right after 9/11 so no, I was never in Afghanistan.”
HOST: “Now how soon would you make a trip there, because it would seem like that’s important to get an up-close view.”
SANTORUM: “Yeah, you know, I think it is. Obviously, you can get, as I have, I mean I get reports from people who are there. I talk to both generals as well as politicians who come and other folks who. . . As well as not generals but people who have served there, both as contractors and as in military personnel. So we get a fair amount of briefing from folks and try to keep a sense of what’s going on there. But, clearly, you know, as president, you’re going to have to visit the war zones and, you know, we would certainly do that.”
HOST: “Ever think, you know, it would not be necessarily be an easy thing to do, but I would think civilian clearance to go there now would make a heck of a statement. Any interest in doing that?”
SANTORUM: “Well, I mean, right now, you know, we’re running a campaign where, you know, I’m pretty much a big part of the campaign so, you know, we’re hustling around states right now trying to talk to as many people as we can. You know, obviously as this campaign goes on, you know, if we end up looking like we’ll wind up with the nomination and we’ve got some time to go other places then talking to folks across the country, we’ll certainly consider doing that.”
HOST: “All right, so you’re not willing to go over there then unless you’re president-elect at this point because of the focus?”
SANTORUM: “Well, right now, I mean, look, my focus is trying to win the nomination.”
HOST: “I understand.”
SANTORUM: “And I’m not too sure making the trip Afghanistan is necessarily anything other than what it looks like: a show. And what I’m looking at is trying to, you know, make sure that we successfully win this nomination.”
HOST: “I understand that, but I’m also suggesting that you being there would be something the president has not done in a long time and I think he’s only done once, maybe twice. So, you know, it’s just a discussion obviously. What about Iran, Pakistan, you know, certainly in the 90s when you were on the Armed Services Committee, those trips must have happened I’m thinking.”
SANTORUM: “Well, we don’t travel to Iran, number one.”
HOST: “Well we don’t now, but there was a time in the ‘90s.”
SANTORUM: “No, I mean not . . . No, look . . . Iran has been at war with us for 30 years. I mean they’ve been at declared war with the United States since 1979. And I’ve been someone who has had some serious concerns about Iran and I . . . No, you know, we, as you know, we haven’t had diplomatic relations with Iran in 30 years.”
HOST: “Sounds like you have frequent flyer points on the way.”
SANTORUM: “Well, no, we don’t have a lot of frequent flyer points. . .”
HOST: “No, I’m saying it sounds like you’re going to rack up a few.”
SANTORUM: “Well, I mean, you know, what I did when I was in the United States Senate was, you know, I wasn’t on a big frequent flyer plan. I mean no, I paid attention to my home state and worked hard and, you know, I had a family with young kids and I spent most of my time working my state and being with my family.”
A couple points. First, this interview suggests he may never go to Afghanistan (it’s only a “show”?!). And it’s untrue he was only on the Senate Armed Service Committee before 9/11. He served until the end of 2002.
It’s virtually inexcusable that a man running for commander in chief and expressing his views on the war would never have bothered to go there. His “well, I was on a committee” is a terrible excuse, confirming that he has a legislative mentality and no real executive leadership experience. In his world, it seems, only what you did inside the Beltway matters.
This kind of revelation tends to underscore how limited Santorum’s life experience is. He’s lived most of his professional life inside the Beltway bubble, seeking no counsel and no wider view of politics than his own convictions. He is in this regard a typical legislator (maybe less well traveled than his peers).
As we have noted a number of times, Santorum suffers not only from a lack of executive skills, but a near-total absence of policy advisers. National Journal reports:
Meet Rick Santorum’s most influential policy adviser: Rick Santorum.
The Republican presidential candidate and his campaign have always touted their lean political operation. The principle apparently applies to the policy side as well. If the former senator from Pennsylvania has teams of economic and national security advisers, they are well hidden. It’s hard to know what kinds of people Santorum would tap to serve in an administration, and whether he could be doing better on the campaign trail if he had more input.
The only name the Santorum campaign has divulged is Mark Rodgers, who was chief of staff for Santorum while he was in the Senate. Rodgers runs The Clapham Group, a values-oriented consulting firm named after an 18th-century faith-driven community near London that fought injustices such as slavery and child labor.
Without input from smart people and reliable advisers (both political and policy) a president can’t function. With only his own voice and his wife’s, Santorum as a candidate is likewise hobbled. He could well have been shocked that his industrial policy (e.g. his pro-manufacturing tax gimmick) was an anathema to fiscal conservatives. Without a pollster (he doesn’t need one, he boasts) he wasted time in Puerto Rico, where he was embarrassed, and is largely flying blind on where his appearances would do the most good. And lacking a firm counselor he insists on going off on tangents when on the trail, in many instances on topics that are distinctly unhelpful to his presidential campaign.
Remarking on Santorum’s latest diversion — stepping up the war against pornography — James Poulos writes in Forbes: “Santorum’s remarkable ability to transform relatively irrelevant issues into politically relevant controversies might keep him under the media spotlight, but actual voters are showing signs of losing interest — fast.” He observes, “It turns out his porn attack isn’t really about the folly of social-issue campaigning after all. It’s part of an even more regrettable and avoidable pattern of conduct: picking and choosing campaign messages, then failing to weave them into an effective, coherent whole.” And we can add, this pattern is hard to alter without professional advisers and high-quality policy hands.
The adviser-less, script-less and focus-less candidate, not surprisingly, is faltering. What works in Iowa for a couple of months doesn’t work on a national scale over weeks and weeks. But more to the point: Such qualities and the absence of both executive skills and judgment strongly suggest he isn’t ready to run the executive branch and serve as commander in chief. Maybe he should take a few years, travel more, get some private-sector experience and then take a crack at the presidency. But only when he is up to the job. The difference between the Senate and the presidency, after all, is that the latter requires more than the desire and ability to listen to the sound of your own voice.