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The Republican War of Words on College


Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., speaks, at Saint Joseph's University's commencement Sunday, May 18, 2003 in Philadelphia. About 100 graduates walked of the commencement excercises rather than see the controversal Santorum awarded an honorary degree. Some students have been urging the Jesuit university to rescind Santorum's invitation to speak and be honored because of the recent flap over remarks he made about homosexuality. Santorum urged graduates to oppose popular culture and refuse to compromise their beliefs and values. (AP Photo/Chris Gardner)  (AP Photo/Chris Gardner)

First came Mitt Romney's dismissive remarks about President Obama's "faculty lounge" pals. Now Rick Santorum is calling Obama snobby for urging people to go to college - and defending that view in a series of TV appearances.

"There are lot of people in this country that have no desire or no aspiration to go to college, because they have a different set of skills and desires and dreams that don't include college," Santorum said Sunday on ABC's This Week. "We should not look down our nose" at people who go to trade school to learn carpentry or plumbing," he added on NBC's Meet The Press, "and say they're somehow less" because they didn't get a four-year college degree.

Hunh. You'd almost think Santorum was trying to win the blue-collar vote in a bunch of Rust Belt primaries, or tap into conservatives' resentment of "some liberal college professor trying to indoctrinate" their kids, as he put it recently.

What do Santorum and Romney have against higher education? They certainly have enough of it themselves. They each hold three degrees - bachelor's, MBA, and law - to Obama's paltry two. Romney earned his two graduate degrees at Harvard; he sometimes talks about his father's humble origins, but his father is best known as an auto executive and governor of Michigan. Santorum often plays up his coal-miner grandfather, but his father was a clinical psychologist, which requires a doctorate.

Both Republican contenders have been painting Obama as an elitist for months. In at least two election-night speeches, Romney has begun sentences about Obama this way: "Like his colleagues in the faulty lounge who think they know better ..." He used to specify the "Harvard faculty lounge," but apparently we're now talking about all faculty lounges. A broad brush, true, and it could lead to some problems staffing up if he won the White House. But it does eliminate the inconsistency with Romney's own Harvard career, and probably makes his campaign's domestic policy director feel better. The adviser, Lanhee Chen, has four Harvard degrees, according to a website that tracks California people and politics.

Santorum - who has a lot of definitive prescriptions for the sex lives of others - also constantly characterizes Obama as someone who wants to dictate to others how to live. "We have a leader that believes he knows what's best," he said Saturday at an Americans For Prosperity rally in Troy, Mich. "The elite think they can manage your life better than you can."

He has taken particular offense lately at what he perceives as Obama's push for people to go to college so they can be "remade" in Obama's image. "President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob," Santorum said in Troy. He went on to add, "Not all folks are gifted in the same way. Some people have incredible gifts with their hands."

Could Harvard alums Obama or Romney have gotten away with a remark like that? Doubtful, even if they softened it by adding, as Santorum did on ABC, that there are "technical schools, there's additional training, vocational training. There's skills and apprenticeships. There's all sorts of things that people can do to upgrade their skills to be very productive and build their community."

As it happens, what Santorum is saying is very close to what Obama has said. Some of the president's highest profile remarks on the subject came in a February 2009 address to a joint session of Congress: "I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. This can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship."

A year ago, Obama did say this: "We need to make sure we're graduating students who are ready for college and a career." Maybe that's the offense that ignited Santorum's ire. Yet it's hard to imagine people wanting a president who disagrees. College graduates earn more money, endure less unemployment, and are vital to the country's economic future. The political thinking behind Santorum's rhetoric is clear, but that doesn't make the sentiment any less jarring.

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