The Ticket

Let Santorum be Santorum! Why honesty beats robotic-message discipline: Character Sketch

Walter Shapiro
The Ticket

As Rick Santorum was taking on water in the Michigan primary, the campaign press pack and the pundits agreed on the diagnosis of his woes: Loose lips sink ships.

Santorum's penchant for creating news clips and headlines with his fiery and revealing rhetoric was widely depicted as a fatal blunder. After all, in the closing days in Michigan, Santorum ridiculed the president as a "snob" for wanting universal post-secondary education and confessed that reading JFK's speech on the separation of church and state made him "throw up." His free-wheeling stump speeches wandered over the political landscape, and Santorum's earnest answers to voter questions (including a nine-minute discourse on Social Security) sounded more like a fledgling congressman trying to explain his views to constituents than a presidential candidate rattling off time-tested sound bites.

The campaign press corps reacted to Santorum's style--and, yes, the substance of his remarks--as if the candidate had just flunked an online course from the Political Training Academy. Politico, on the eve of the Michigan primary, reported on the concern among Republican insiders about Santorum constantly "having to explain away off-message comments about topics other than the economy." After the returns came in, the Washington Post linked Santorum's hot-button remarks to a sense that "Republicans may be starting to conclude that a Santorum candidacy is too risky for a party desperate to beat Obama." And writing in the Wall Street Journal, Karl Rove sniffed, "Mr. Santorum couldn't beat Mr. Romney mano-a-mano. Unforced errors played a role. Mr. Santorum's crude dismissal of John F. Kennedy's famous 1960 speech advocating the strict separation of church and state didn't come across well."

It is easy to understand why a partisan strategist like Rove would disdain a candidate so independent that he actually says what he thinks. No political consultant waved a poll to convince Santorum to make a barf-bag crack about John Kennedy. This was Santorum unplugged--a sleep-deprived candidate using passionate language to explain to voters why he believes that religion should not be banished from the public square.

(Now for the parenthetical where I explain that, while I strongly disagree with the substance of Santorum's comments on these topics, I will defend to the edge of my computer keyboard his right to say them in the heat of a presidential primary).

What is much harder to justify is why the political press gleefully ridicules candidates who depart from the campaign scripts written by their handlers. Rather than appreciating spontaneity in a presidential contender, most political reporters--echoing the worldview of campaign consultants--view it as a crippling character flaw.

What the press corps respects is the professionalism of a presidential candidate who hides his personal views behind the veneer of poll-tested banalities. If a would-be president provides a candid glimpse of the values that would animate him in the Oval Office, the news media brands the candidate as a loser for his unseemly breach of message discipline.

In Michigan, campaign reporters were eager to attribute Santorum's primary defeat to his off-message comments, especially about social issues. But I question whether this think-like-a-campaign-consultant conclusion is supported by the evidence. I interviewed roughly 100 Republicans all across Michigan from Zeeland, near the shores of Lake Michigan, to Livonia, in the Detroit suburbs. Not a single one mentioned Santorum's comments about Kennedy or about Obama's purported snobbery to explain their votes. Granted, Santorum's electability was a continuing concern. But it was hard to tell whether his recent bursts of unscripted candor about social issues were the main reason. It is just as likely that the press corps' oft-expressed conclusion that Santorum is not electable played a role in convincing voters that he would face a steep climb in November.

Small wonder that Mitt Romney has been following the traditional front-runner's strategy of saying as little as possible as long as he can get away with it. His infrequent press conferences seem to coincide with lunar cycles. And if voters want to ask Romney questions, well, they should have been in Iowa last year. This is the way smart politics is waged in an era of YouTube and Twitter, when any off-the-cuff remark can bounce across the galaxy from here to Alpha Centauri. Romney reciting the lyrics to "America the Beautiful" is a safety device just like Barack Obama's devotion to his teleprompters.

Faced with the scarcity of new material in a Romney speech, reporters seize on any ad-lib with the enthusiasm of orphans finding a raisin in their breakfast gruel. So each time that Romney talks about his wife's Cadillacs or his friends who own NASCAR teams, it is treated as head-snapping, he-said-what, headline material. The problem is each of these Romney flap-a-doodles offers the exact same message to voters: the man from Bain Capital is rich and out of touch. Please understand, there is nothing wrong with giggling at Romney's Mitt-aprop comments about his wealth. But each variant of a solid-gold-Cadillac joke tells us nothing new about how a President Romney would govern in 2013.

Whatever you think of Santorum's views, he is a presidential candidate who craves being understood. The same can be said for the loquacious Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul. But the press has a non-ideological bias (and this is not a word I use lightly) toward robotic candidates like Romney, who play by the orthodox tight-lipped rules handed down on stone tablets by big-name campaign consultants. The result is that the deck ends up being inadvertently stacked against insurgents like Santorum, whose heretical sin is committing honesty in the heat of a presidential campaign.

Walter Shapiro, who is covering his ninth presidential campaign, writes the "Character Sketch" column for Yahoo! News, examining what we know about the character and personalities of the 2012 candidates. He is also a special correspondent for the New Republic. Follow him on Twitter at @waltershapiroPD.

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