A new ad from the pro-Mitt Romney super PAC Restore Our Future plays a game of gotcha politics. It grabs a comment from Rick Santorum — “I don’t care what the unemployment rate’s going to be” — out of context to frame an attack on the former senator’s record on economic issues.
In context, Santorum was making the point that the election was about something bigger — more “foundational” — than just the economy, that it was about less government intrusion into the private sector. And that his campaign “doesn’t hinge” on the unemployment rate.
The Restore Our Future TV ad airing in Wisconsin begins and ends with a clip of Santorum saying, “I don’t care what the unemployment rate’s going to be. It doesn’t matter to me.”
In between, the ad attacks Santorum for his votes to raise the debt ceiling five times, his votes for earmarks including the infamous Bridge to Nowhere, and his vote against a national right-to-work law. We’ll get to those, but let’s start with the quote that anchors the ad.
Narrator, Restore Our Future ad: "On the economy, Rick Santorum says … "
Santorum: "I don’t care what the unemployment rate’s going to be. It doesn’t matter to me."
Santorum did, in fact, utter those words during a 40-minute speech at a campaign rally in Moline, Ill., on March 19. (You can hear it here, at about the 34:15 mark).
In the speech, Santorum talked about repealing the health care law and regulations enacted by the Obama administration that he said represent a fundamentally different view of the role of government in America from his.
That’s when he dropped the unemployment comment. Here’s a fuller context:
Santorum, March 19: "We need a candidate who’s going to be a fighter for freedom. Who’s going to get up and make that the central theme in this race because it is the central theme in this race. I don’t care what the unemployment rate’s going to be. It doesn’t matter to me. My campaign doesn’t hinge on unemployment rates and growth rates. There’s something more foundational that’s going on here.
We have one nominee who says he wants to run the economy. What kind of conservative says that the president runs the economy? What kind of conservative says, ‘I’m the guy, because of my economic experience, that can create jobs?’ I don’t know, we conservatives generally think that government doesn’t create jobs, that what government does is create an atmosphere for jobs to be created in the private sector."
Minutes after the speech, Santorum clarified his comments to reporters.
Santorum, March 19: "Of course I care about the unemployment rate. I want the unemployment rate to go down. But I’m saying, my candidacy doesn’t hinge on whether the unemployment rate goes up and down. Our candidacy is about something that transcends that.
It’s about freedom. It’s not about, you know, Governor Romney’s idea that he’s gonna fix the economy, which is something of course, that Republicans don’t believe that presidents fix the economy. We believe that we do things to try and create an atmosphere for the economy to fix itself."
Santorum clarified, yet again, later that night in an interview on Fox News.
Santorum, March 19: "What I said was that the unemployment rate — it didn’t matter what it was between now and election time, because the fundamental issue that’s causing the unemployment, that’s causing the economic distress in our country, is the fact that the government is imposing its will and mandating things on people and creating a yoke on top of businesses that makes it hard to employ.
So if you want to solve the unemployment problem, you have to solve the regulatory tax and government oppression problem. So one is the cause of the other. So it’s not that unemployment isn’t important, it’s just you have to get to the foundational root cause of what is causing the unemployment."
Nonetheless, Romney pounced. “One of the people who is running also for the Republican nomination today said that he doesn’t care about the unemployment rate,” Romney said. “That does bother me. I do care about the unemployment rate. It does bother me.”
The suggestion that Santorum doesn’t care about unemployment is nonsense. In nearly every speech he has made on the campaign trail, Santorum has talked about his ideas to improve the economy and the jobs situation, including the speech from which Restore Our Future lifted his truncated quote.
Watch how easy it is to lift a quote out of context to change the meaning:
Romney, Feb. 1: "I’m not concerned about the very poor."
Although the quote made headlines, it too deserved fuller context. Here’s a fuller excerpt of Romney’s words that day:
Romney: "I’m in this race because I care about Americans. I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it.
I’m not concerned about the very rich, they’re doing just fine. I’m concerned about the very heart of the America, the 90, 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling and I’ll continue to take that message across the nation."
Later that day, a reporter asked Romney, “What did you mean when you said you were not very concerned about poor people?”
Romney said his statement was mischaracterized, and that, “Of course I’m concerned about all Americans — poor, wealthy, middle class, but the focus of my effort will be on middle income families who I think have been most hurt by the Obama economy.”
Said Romney: “You’ve got to take the whole sentence, all right, as opposed to saying, and then change it just a little bit, because then it sounds very different.”
The Restore Our Future ad also attacks Santorum for his votes to raise the debt ceiling, his votes for earmarks including the infamous Bridge to Nowhere, and against a national right-to-work law. And those are all accurate.
Santorum did vote to increase the debt limit five times, in 1997, 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2006. Those votes, combined, raised the debt limit by nearly $3.5 trillion, according to a Congressional Research Service report.
And as the ad says, Santorum did vote for a massive transportation spending bill that included the Bridge to Nowhere earmark. And he voted against an amendment to specifically defund the Bridge to Nowhere. Santorum has requested earmarks, has voted for numerous bills that contained them, and has repeatedly defended the practice and the earmarks he requested (though he now says the practice of earmarks has been abused and should be suspended).
And it’s also true that Santorum voted in 1996 to block consideration of a national right-to-work law. Santorum joined 20 other Republicans and 47 Democrats to stymie the bill, which would have ended requirements that force nonunion employees to pay dues for union representation.
But as we wrote when we looked into ads from Restore Our Future and the Romney campaign in February — in which they pointed out some of the same votes — those attacks are on paper thin ice. We found that three fiscally conservative groups rate Santorum’s lifetime voting record as better than most other Republican lawmakers, and one of them considers him a “Taxpayer Hero.”