Time was against Rick Santorum in Michigan. Too much time passed without a vote anywhere to sustain his momentum or distract the media from scrutiny of his sometimes-inscrutable statements. Without pandering to theories of bias, I still believe that many journalists and opinionators were happy to find in Santorum a candidate who embodied nearly perfectly -- lacking only a southern accent -- the bogeyman image of a religious-right reactionary. Too much time passed, and second thoughts were inevitable. His lead in the polls before the primary dwindled gradually until Mitt Romney eked out a victory yesterday. Did days make a difference? Could he have won if something had gone unsaid? It's impossible to say, but if any of his utterances proved a self-administered coup de grace it was probably not one of his theocratic howlers nor his comment that fellow Catholic John F. Kennedy's remarks on the separation of church and state made him want to vomit. If any gaffe did him in, I suspect it was his breathtaking outburst from last Saturday in Troy MI -- words that will live in infamy: "President Obama said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob!" To appreciate how far beyond the pale this was, try to imagine Newt Gingrich with his sci-fi dreams saying the same thing. In a campaign characterized by crazed charges of "class warfare," this was demagoguery in its rawest form, and I can well imagine even Republicans being taken aback by it. Even they know that making money requires education more than ever, yet here was Santorum, thinking he had come to the defense of all those humble people who worked with their hands, trying to convince them that the President's vision had insulted them when he, the Pennsylvanian, had actually insulted the nation's intelligence. In fact, Santorum had probably judged the mood of his immediate audience right, but misjudged the Michigan Republican electorate. He won among those without any college time, but lost the state.
There was another side to Santorum's argument that more Republicans may have endorsed. That was his suspicion that colleges were out to brainwash or indoctrinate students and make liberals of them. I'm sure many Republicans fear such an effort, but bravely enroll anyway, perhaps expecting to find comfort and mutual support in a Young Republicans or YAF chapter. The fear of indoctrination or brainwashing is strong and out of control in our culture. It finds nonpartisan expression in the fear of cults and their leaders. If the paranoia often has a rightist tinge, it has a leftist pedigree going back to postmodernist distrust of objectivity. I am perhaps no less postmodern for suggesting that anyone who fears indoctrination, who sees it even in the teaching of facts, is already indoctrinated, or already brainwashed. But the moral for today is that many if not most of those who do fear indoctrination of some kind will not abandon the idea of a college education or disparage the idea of every American going to college simply to flatter a crowd or win a primary. Santorum's tirade may have cost him more votes than any commercial Romney or his friends aired against him. He may well have rhetorically shot himself in the head last Saturday, but he'll probably keep on walking for a while yet.