Just days after surging out of underfunded campaign obscurity to a photo finish with presumed GOP presidential front-runner Mitt Romney in the Iowa caucuses, former two-term U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania got himself in hot water for telling a Sioux City, Iowa campaign crowd that "I don't want to make black people's lives better by giving them somebody else's money. I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn money."
NAACP President Benjamin Jealous denounced the comments as "outrageous," and even Fox News host Bill O'Reilly had to remind Santorum that his comments were specious when you consider that "most of the people, as you know, on welfare are white people." Then Santorum made the whole thing worse by denying that he'd even said "black" and insisting instead that what he'd actually said was "blah."
In this weekend's Saturday-and-Sunday New Hampshire primary-debate double-header, if he doesn't take the opportunity to — in Senate-speak — revise and extend his thoughts on blacks and welfare, he'll just wind up being the latest in a long line of GOP politicians who not only can't connect with the black vote, but can't even make a convincing case that they've tried. Santorum tried — and awkwardly failed — to articulate a position that you hear all the time from black conservatives: that government assistance hurts African Americans over the long term. The problem for Santorum is that it doesn't sound as if he truly understands that message.
Black economist Walter Williams has said that "the welfare state has done to black Americans what slavery couldn't do." And at his Twitter town hall meeting last year, President Obama recounted how, "as somebody who worked in low-income neighborhoods, I've seen it where people weren't encouraged to work, weren't encouraged to upgrade their skills, were just getting a check, and over time their motivation started to diminish." The concept of welfare dependency really isn't news.
But even if you give Santorum the benefit of the doubt — that he's encouraging lower-income African Americans to strive for prosperity — that careless line about welfare still doesn't wash. It sounds more like he heard it somewhere and figured it was OK to conflate that sentiment with the prevailing view among many Republicans that the bloated "nanny state" is the cause of all the nation's economic woes.
If, instead, Santorum meant to pander to people who want to believe that everything from the mortgage crisis to the national debt can be blamed on blacks and other minorities living on the government dole, then he'll have shown himself to be unworthy of the office of president. And if he was trying to convince African Americans — or anyone else — that they ought to consider voting for him by singling out black welfare recipients in an election year that's mostly going to wind up as a referendum on big-ticket issues like Medicare and national defense, then that's a strange way to do it.
Santorum was always the candidate whose signature issues best mirrored the themes of the conservative movement over the last three decades. His bellicose posture on Iran, his antipathy to gay rights and his economic populist message most closely mirror the "three-legged stool" of contemporary American conservatism outlined by William F. Buckley Jr. and embodied by Ronald Reagan. The old "welfare queen" riff was part of it.
If Santorum wants to be taken seriously when he insists that he meant no harm and says that he's "proud of my record" working with the black community, he should take the time to explain why he believes that black communities are poorly served by government assistance, or make clear that his economic message applies to all Americans — black or otherwise. If all he can muster is a claim that what he really meant to say was "blah" — not black — it won't make him look bigoted. It'll just make him look like a coward.
David Swerdlick is a contributing editor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.