In Defense Of Rick Santorum

by Alec MacGillis | January 18, 2012

Monday night's debate in Myrtle Beach was an unsettling affair to watch, with a crowd that was arguably more raucous and malevolent than any of the other hopped-up audiences at this year's Republican debates. At moments, one couldn't help but wonder if the Union would've been better off ceding its vanquished opponent in 1865 to Mexico, the mere mention of which drew lusty boos from the spectators on Monday.

But the New York Times editorial board missed the mark when it weighed in with its judgment in today's lead editorial on the dangers of "preaching division in South Carolina." It chided not only Newt Gingrich, who brazenly played to the crowd with his "food stamp president" riff against moderator Juan Williams, but also Rick Santorum. Santorum, the editorial declared, "also got in on the game, responding to a question about high rates of black poverty with a lecture on the importance of work, high school graduation and marriage. Unfortunately, he said, the Obama administration refuses to encourage those kinds of good choices."

This is an unfair pairing. Gingrich's riff was one big dog-whistle to Southern white resentment of entitled and lazy minorities living off the dole. Santorum's was his umpteenth reiteration of a relatively wonky argument that he makes at just about every stop on the trail -- citing a Brookings study that noted that people who graduate high school, have a job and get married before having kids are very unlikely to be living in poverty. Santorum invariably follows up this citation by arguing that the Obama administration has not done enough to encourage people to achieve that three-legged stool, particularly the marriage part of it; this is a debatable point, but it's also an entirely predictable one from a social conservative like Santorum, and hardly out of bounds.

Most of all, though, it seems odd to be chiding Santorum for playing to unpleasant racial dynamics when he spent several minutes early in the debate arguing on behalf of restoring voting rights to ex-convicts. It served the purpose of throwing Mitt Romney back on his heels for a few moments as he scrambled to compute what the proper answer was on this touchy issue, but it was also about as likely to win Santorum votes in the GOP South Carolina primary as cutting up the Confederate flag in front of the state Capitol for napkins. Yet there he was, saying this:

SANTORUM: Governor Romney's super PAC has put an ad out there suggesting that I voted to allow felons to be able to vote from prison, because they said I'm allowing felons to vote, and they put a prisoner -- a person in a prison jumpsuit.

I would ask Governor Romney, do you believe people who have -- who were felons, who served their time, who have extended -- exhausted their parole and probation, should they be given the right to vote?

WILLIAMS: Governor Romney?

ROMNEY: First of all, as you know, the PACs that run ads on various candidates, as we unfortunately know in this --

SANTORUM: I'm looking for a question -- an answer to the question first.


ROMNEY: We have plenty of time. I'll get there. I'll do it in the order I want to do. I believe that, as you realize that the super PACs run ads. And if they ever run an ad or say something that is not accurate, I hope they either take off the ad or make it -- or make it correct. I guess that you said that they -- they said that you voted to make felons vote? Is that it?

SANTORUM: That's correct. That's what the ad says.

ROMNEY: And you're saying that you didn't?

SANTORUM: Well, first, I'm asking you to answer the question, because that's how you got the time. It's actually my time. So if you can answer the question, do you believe, do you believe that felons who have served their time, gone through probation and parole, exhausted their entire sentence, should they be given the right to have a vote?

This is Martin Luther King Day. This is a huge deal in the African-American community, because we have very high rates of incarceration, disproportionately high rates, particularly with drug crimes, in the African-American community.

The bill I voted on was the Martin Luther King Voting Rights bill. And this was a provision that said, particularly targeted African-Americans. And I voted to allow -- to allow them to have their voting rights back once they completed their sentence.

For a Republican candidate to be talking like this when Republican state legislatures are doing their darndest to suppress black turnout, by non-convicted voters much less by felons, is a big deal. So, credit where credit's due, New York Times.

follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis

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