With high unemployment and jobs as voters' top concern this election year, Rick Santorum said something to Republicans in Illinois yesterday that, when taken out of context, seemed unwise.
"I don't care what the unemployment rate's going to be. Doesn't matter to me." These five seconds, in isolation, made Mitt Romney's campaign as gleeful as they've been in quite a while.
And though I'm generally not in the habit of defending Rick Santorum, in this case, he's getting a raw deal. Here's the full context of the former senator's comments:
"We need a candidate who's going to be a fighter for freedom. Who's going to get up and make that the central theme in this race because it is the central theme in this race. I don't care what the unemployment rate's going to be. Doesn't matter to me. My campaign doesn't hinge on unemployment rates and growth rates. It's something more foundational that's going on."We have one nominee who says he wants to run the economy. What kind of conservative says that the president runs the economy? What conservative says I'm the guy, because of my economic experience, that can create jobs? I don't know. We conservatives generally think that government doesn't create jobs. That what government does is create an atmosphere for jobs to be created in the private sector."
After Romney and his team launched an aggressive blitz on this, Santorum told reporters, "Of course I care about the unemployment rate. I want the unemployment rate to go down, but I'm saying my candidacy doesn't hinge on whether the unemployment rate goes up and down, our candidacy's about something that transcends that."
The context is obviously far more nuanced than what the Romney campaign wants the public to believe, but it's worth emphasizing a relevant detail: Santorum's right. Not only was he taken out of context, but his campaign doesn't hinge on whether the unemployment rate goes up and down. Indeed, at a certain level, this relates specifically to Santorum's largely-unstated electability argument: as the economy improves, the rationale for Romney's candidacy falters, while Santorum's rationale remains intact.
Romney's pitch is that he's Mr. Fix It -- a corporate turnaround artist with an MBA. Looking for a candidate who'll get the economy moving and put people back to work? Just so long as you overlook his only leadership experience in government and all the mass layoffs he orchestrated at his vulture-capital firm, Romney's your guy.
What happens to that pitch if the economy improves, growth strengthens, and job creation picks up steam before the election? I don't know. More importantly, I don't think Romney knows, either.
Santorum's pitch is altogether different. Whether the unemployment rate is 8.3% or 3.8%, Santorum is offering a message about culture, values, and religion. He doesn't like contraception; he wants to restrict access to pornography; and a spirited defense of the separation of church and state makes him, in Santorum's words, want to "vomit."
As the former senator put it yesterday, "My campaign doesn't hinge on unemployment rates and growth rates. It's something more foundational that's going on."
Whether one finds Santorum's agenda offensive or not, at least this is coherent and consistent. Unlike so many Republicans, he's not rooting for bad economic news before the election, because the health of the economy is independent of his right-wing societal vision.