Sunday, September 03, 2006

The political perils of sound-bite candor

It’s doubtful that more than a fraction of Pennsylvanians interrupted their holiday this morning to watch Rick Santorum and Bob Casey Jr. joust for the U.S. Senate job on Meet the Press. So the “winner” is probably going to be the guy who can best master the post-debate spin, probably by highlighting a sound bite (suitable for endless TV replay) that depicts his opponent screwing up in some memorable fashion. In other words, the debate itself is not nearly as pivotal as the subsequent debate over its interpretation.

Santorum, the GOP incumbent and Bush loyalist who trails in the polls, has to be a tad frustrated, because his soporific opponent refuses to talk in sound bites. As a result, Santorum probably didn’t get anything that showed Casey damaging himself with his own words. That’s because Casey just tends to meander along, repeating verbose talking points culled from his speeches, and deflecting the thrust of questions in a lulling tone of voice that would best suit a meditation instructor.

When host Tim Russert asked Casey whether he would have voted to authorize Bush to invade Iraq, knowing what he knows today, Casey replied by saying that most Americans would not have voted yes; and when Russert asked (multiple times) whether that meant that he would not have voted yes, Casey said only that he doubted there would have been a vote at all.

The same pattern was repeated midway through the debate when Russert asked Casey how he would tame Social Security and Medical expenses and balance the federal budget. Russert asked, what programs would you cut? Casey responded by saying he’d eliminate the tax breaks for people earning more than $200,000 a year, maybe close some off-shore tax loopholes, maybe make some changes in the estate tax, and maybe find other ways to cut costs, like the way Pennsylvania has trimmed the number of outside consultants, and grow the economy…Russert repeated his question, and Casey repeated some variation of his initial response.

Since Casey didn’t hang himself in a sound bite, Santorum was reduced to attacking Casey in his own sound bites. Samples: “He (Casey) is against anything that cuts government. He’s for raising taxes.” And, “No specifics, no answers.” And, “Your party has been trying to undermine our surveillance programs…What do you think has kept our people safe?” And because the anti-abortion Casey nevertheless supports the morning-after contraception pill, “His father (an avowed abortion foe) would be very upset if he was alive today.” But without Casey hanging himself in a phrase of his own, those one-liners probably have limited utility.

But from Casey’s perspective, however, this debate was probably a success, because on two key occasions, Santorum – who is, by nature, more glib and outspoken -- uttered two potentially damaging sound bites at his own expense.

The lesser of the two: “I probably spend maybe a month a year” at his home in Pennsylvania.

Santorum has been politically hurt by reports, over the past several years, that he was home-schooling five of his six kids at his Virginia residence with most of the tab being picked up by the Penn Hills School District in southwestern Pennsylvania; and now it turns out that state taxpayers, through the state Education Department, will compensate the school district to the tune of 55 grand. Under questioning today, Santorum said he’s really a Pine Hills guy (“I vote there, my dentist is there”), but when asked how much time he spends at his house there, he uttered his month-a-year line. This sounds like a parochial issue, but polls have indicated that the residency flap has already been hurting him in his home region.

But the more important one-liner, the potential gift to the Casey campaign, was his overall assessment of President Bush.

Santorum said that of course he and the boss don’t always agree on things – Santorum pointed out today that he still thinks that we have found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, whereas Bush now says we have not – but the senator was still upbeat about his beleaguered leader. Hence, the debate’s number-one sound bite:

“I think he’s been a terrific president, absolutely.”

Santorum’s base probably liked that line; at least he doesn't bob and weave like his challenger. The problem is, statewide polls indicate that seven in 10 Pennsylvanians certainly don't view Bush as terrific, at least not in the positive sense. This could be a case when a politician's sound-bite candor puts him out of step with the voting majority. All year long, Santorum has been battling a headwind. That particular line could expose him to stormier weather.