Jeff Jacoby

Commentators, not all of them Democrats, have been having a field day since GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum charged Barack Obama with snobbery for pushing the idea that everyone needs a college education.

"President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college," Santorum told an Americans for Prosperity forum in Troy, Mich. “What a snob!” Critics, mocking and incredulous, reacted as if the former Pennsylvania senator had uncorked the most boneheaded gaffe since Dan Quayle misspelled potato.

"Ridiculous? Offensive? Hypocritical? Manifestly, all of the above," wrote Eugene Robinson in the Washington Post. On The Daily Show, the inimitable Jon Stewart was beside himself: "Just to be clear," he said, "you're coming out against people educating their kids because it's – fancy?" Vice President Joe Biden assured a radio interviewer that Santorum had managed to separate himself from "all of America on this."

I'm not so sure.

Even the formidable messaging prowess of the Obama machine will have a tough time convincing voters that the triply-degreed Santorum -- B.A. (Penn State, 1980); M.B.A. (University of Pittsburgh, 1981); and J.D. (Dickinson Law School, 1986) -- is opposed to higher education. In fact, Talking Points Memo, a liberal website, pointed out that as a Senate candidate in 2006, Santorum touted his support for "loans, grants, and tax incentives to make higher education more accessible and affordable."

Santorum's "what a snob!" rebuke was certainly strident, an example of how little his tone on the campaign trail has in common with the sunny graciousness Ronald Reagan deployed so effectively. Like Newt Gingrich, Santorum often speaks as if he believes that political rhetoric, to be convincing, must be intemperate and polarizing. But were his comments about higher education a blunder? The crowd in Troy sure didn't think so: It burst into applause and approving laughter.


Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby is an Op-Ed writer for the Boston Globe, a radio political commentator, and a contributing columnist for Townhall.com.