Santorum's 'Snub' Was No Gaffe

Jeff Jacoby

3/5/2012 1:21:00 PM - 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.

Santorum made two points that plainly resonated with his audience. One was that college isn't for everyone: "Not all folks are gifted the same way. Some people have incredible gifts with their hands. Some people ... want to work out there making things." In a country where more than two-thirds of adults don't possess a college degree, a president who suggests that there's something inferior in having just a high school education,as Obama arguably has done, opens himself up to a charge of elitism.

Much more explicitly ideological was Santorum's second point -- that American academia skews heavily to the left, and that Obama sees colleges as indoctrination mills for generating more Democrats.

"There are good, decent men and women who go out and work hard every day and put their skills to tests that aren't taught by some liberal college professor trying to indoctrinate them," Santorum said to cheers. "Oh, I understand why he wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image."

Too shrill by half for my taste -- red meat for Tea Party Republicans and a guaranteed hackle-raiser for liberal Democrats. William F. Buckley Jr. made the point far more deftly nearly 50 years ago: "I should sooner live in a society governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the 2,000 faculty members of Harvard University." Santorum's gibe, sad to say, had none of the wit or elegance of Buckley's formulation.

William F. Buckley: "I should "sooner live in a society governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the 2,000 faculty members of Harvard University."

But a gaffe? Hardly. The left-wing tilt of American universities is by now a self-evident truth. Surveys have long confirmed that liberals heavily outnumber conservatives on college faculties. Does anyone doubt that the Obama campaign will collect vastly more in campaign contributions from people working in higher education than will the GOP nominee, regardless of who that nominee turns out to be?

Politically and culturally, America's colleges don't look like America. They resemble, in George F. Will's phrase, intellectual versions of one-party nations. On campus, as in such nations, dissidents may thrive -- and it is the dissidents who are most apt to tell the truth about the stifling orthodoxies that reign around them.

To the chattering class and establishment elites, Santorum's "snob" remark may come across as weird, fanatic, and disconnected from reality. But when you look at the video of his appearance in Troy, it's clear that plenty of ordinary voters understand just what he means, however inelegantly expressed. And not only understand, but cheer.