“Politics is a team sport, folks”

    There’s a big reason why so few senators make it to the presidency. They have to cast a lot of votes, and they have to wade knee deep in parliamentary arcana. The longer they serve, the more they become “insiders,” and that’s one of the worst labels to carry into a presidential campaign.Case in point, Rick Santorum. He did his candidacy no favors last night, during the (latest? last?) Republican debate, by mucking around in the legislative weeds for excruciatingly long stretches of time.This had to be good news for Mitt Romney, who risks a major blow to his own candidacy next Tuesday if he loses Michigan, one of his many home states. Romney’s main aim last night was to remind tea-partying conservative voters that Santorum was a longtime Senate fixture who abetted the expansion of government. And Santorum, by yammering endlessly in the language of legislatese, basically confirmed the charge.For what it’s worth, I warned here two months ago that if Santorum ever took flight as a candidate, his Senate tenure would come back to haunt him: “In a climate where voters hate Washington, his background is baggage (and) out of sync with today’s predominantly populist vibe.” Which is why he spent so much of last night’s debate playing defense. Worse yet, he had to contend with a pro-Romney audience – the debate was staged in Arizona, where Romney’s strong organization packed the place – and every time Santorum hit a rough patch, the listeners groaned and rumbled and sighed, as if they were suffering stomach cramps.There were numerous such episodes. For instance, during a preposterously lengthy tiff over earmarks (really? this is what most Americans care about?), Santorum was reminded that as senator he had voted for the infamous Alaskan “bridge to nowhere.” Part of his defense went like this: “What happened in the earmark process – what happens in the earmark process was that members of Congress would ask, formally, publicly request these things, put them on paper, and have them allocated, and have them voted on a committee, have them voted on, on the floor of the Senate,” followed by a tutorial about how the president can veto a whole appropriations bill, but how Santorum supports a line-item veto that would allow for the targeted vetoing of earmarks without touching the more valid appropriations, but the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down a line-item veto…And so on.Later, the issue of birth control came up. (CNN posted an online question, asking where the candidates stood on birth control, and naturally the right-wing audience booed. The candidates talked instead about religious freedom and naturally never got around to answering the question – and is it any wonder why women voters will flee the GOP in droves this year?) And, again, Santorum wound up in the weeds.Turns out that, as a senator, Santorum had voted Yes for “Title X funding.” To the average voter/viewer, that kind of terminology is deadly; worse yet, Title X is federal money for reproductive services – including birth control.Amidst the booing, Santorum sought to explain with a tortured tutorial on the art of senatorial compromise. Into the weeds we go:”I opposed Title X funding. I’ve always opposed Title X funding, but it’s included in a large appropriation bill that includes a whole host of other things, including the funding for the National Institutes of Health, the funding for Health and Human Services and a whole bunch of other departments. It’s a multi-billion-dollar bill. What I did, because Title X was always pushed through, I did something that no one else did….I said, well, if you’re going to have Title X funding, then we’re going to create something called Title XX, which is going to provide funding for abstinence-based programs, so at least we’ll have an opportunity to provide programs that actually work in – in keeping children from being sexually active instead of facilitating children from being sexually active. And I pushed Title XX to – to accomplish that goal.”So while, yes, I – I admit I voted for large appropriation bills and there were things in there I didn’t like, things in there I did, but when it came to this issue, I proactively stepped forward and said that we need to do something at least to counterbalance it…I think it’s – I think I was making it clear that, while I have a personal more objection to it; even though I don’t support it, that I voted for bills that included it. And I made it very clear in subsequent interviews that I don’t – I don’t support that…”More booing.”…I’ve never supported it, and – and have – and on an individual basis have voted against it. That’s why I proposed Title XX to counterbalance it.”Senators makes these kinds of accommodations all the time; indeed, if Romney had beaten Ted Kennedy in 1994 and served in the Senate, he would have done the same stuff. But tea-party conservatives in 2012 are interested in purity, not reality. Santorum had compromised his principles; to make matters worse, he ‘fessed up in the language of senatorial minutiae.And so it went, later in the debate, when the education issue surfaced. Santorum is an avowed foe of public schools (he says they’re government-run “factories”) – but, as a senator, he voted Yes for No Child Left Behind, the George W. Bush initiative that set federal standards for local schools. Last night, Santorum felt compelled to volunteer this information, lest one of his rivals bring it up first:”I supported No Child Left Behind. I supported it. It was the principal priority of President Bush to try to take on a failing education system and try to impose some sort of testing regime that would be able to quantify how well we’re doing with respect to education. I have to admit, I voted for that. It was against the principles I believed in, but, you know, when you’re part of the team, sometimes you take one for the team, for the leader, and I made a mistake.”It was against the principles I believed in…The peanut gallery didn’t like that line at all. More boos rained down on Rick, who nonetheless soldiered on:”You know, politics is a team sport, folks. And sometimes you’ve got to rally together and do something. And in this case, you know, I thought testing was – and finding out how bad the problem was wasn’t a bad idea. What was a bad idea was all the money that was put out there, and that, in fact, was a huge problem. I admit the mistake and I will not make that mistake again. You have someone who is committed.”So it went all night. Santorum also had to defend and explain why he had voted numerous times to raise the federal debt ceiling (I’ll spare you the arcana), and why he had endorsed fellow Pennsylvania Republican senator Arlen Specter when Specter was threatened in a 2004 primary by conservative challenger Pat Toomey (did the average debate viewer care a whit about the internal party machinations of a Pennsylvania primary that took place nearly eight years ago?).All of which played to Romney’s advantage. Above all, he wants conservative primary voters to view Santorum as a career politician tainted by Washington wheeling and dealing. Santorum may have been right when he said that “politics is a team sport, folks,” but the folks are not in the mood for a lecture on senatorial sportiness. Indeed, we’ll learn on Tuesday, in Michigan and Arizona, whether his Senate pedigree has slowed his ascent.  ——-Speaking of Santorum: In my newspaper column today, I deconstructed his weekend Nazi-Obama analogy. Sorry, however, for the misspelling of Hitler’s first name. Someone (me, especially) should have caught that one.——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

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