During Wednesday night’s debate in Arizona, Rick Santorum had a chance to answer a recent barrage of criticisms from Mitt Romney on Santorum's record on earmarks. While Santorum may have won the analytical arguments, his opponents may have won the dramatic exchanges.
Moderator John King challenged Santorum to defend his past support for earmarks, an issue Romney has raised often in the past few weeks. Santorum mentioned that many earmarks in the past have been “good,” including the one that led to the development of V-22 Osprey military aircraft. Santorum continued:
Congress has a role to play when it comes to appropriating money, and sometimes the president and the administration doesn't get it right. What happened was an abuse of the process.
When that abuse occurred, I stepped forward, as Jim DeMint did, who, by the way, was an earmarker, as almost everybody else in Congress was. Why? Because Congress has a role of allocating resources when they think the administration has it wrong.
I defended that at the time. I'm proud I defended it at the time, because I think they did make mistakes. I do believe there was abuse, and I said we should stop it, and as president I would oppose earmarks.
It was an admirable defense of Congress’s role as an appropriator and one Santorum has deployed before. Furthermore, Santorum also noted that Romney wasn’t always against earmarks. “He's out there on television ads right now, unfortunately, attacking me for saying that I'm this great earmarker,” Santorum said, “when he not only asked for earmarks for the Salt Lake Olympics in the order of tens of millions of dollars, sought those earmarks and used them, and he did as the governor of Massachusetts, $300 million or $400 million. He said, ‘I would be foolish if I didn't go out and try to get federal dollars.’”
Romney response defended his Olympic earmarks while going after those Santorum voted for in the Senate. “But while I was fighting to save the Olympics, you were fighting to save the Bridge to Nowhere,” Romney said. Not a bad debate line.
Romney called the earmark process “broken” and argued for a more straightforward approach to appropriations. “If Congress wants to vote in favor of a bill, they should take that bill, bring it forward with committees, have people vote it up or down on the floor of the House or the Senate, have the president say yes or no, and move forward,” he said.
Santorum fired back. “It’s really interesting, Governor, because the process you just described of an open process where members of Congress put forth their suggestions on how to spend money, have them voted on individually, is exactly how the process worked,” he said. “So what you just suggested as to how earmarks should work in the future is exactly how they worked in the past. So I suspect you would have supported earmarks if you were in the United States Senate.”
Ron Paul took the opportunity to point out that he votes against nearly every spending bill. “But if you say you're against the earmarking and fuss and fume over, the answer is vote against the bill,” Paul said. “That is what I do. I argue for the case of the responsibility being on the Congress, but it's the responsibility of us who believe in fiscal conservatism to vote against the bill.” That got a loud cheer from the audience, which Santorum later noted to CNN’s Gloria Borger seemed filled with Romney supporters.
Will the exchange have big implications for the GOP race? It’s hard to say, since ending earmarks is a pet issue for some conservative activists but isn't fundamental to the nation’s long-term fiscal health. In fact, on more pressing matters like the threat from Iran and entitlement spending, Romney and Santorum appeared to largely agree on substance. But with a topic that the Romney campaign has hit Santorum on repeatedly in recent weeks, Santorum struggled to successfully and succinctly counter the criticism.
The former Pennsylvania senator did a much better job at responding to a question about his strong positions on social issues. Here was Santorum’s answer in full:
What we're seeing is a problem in our culture with respect to children being raised by children, children being raised out of wedlock, and the impact on society economically, the impact on society with respect to drug use and all -- a host of other things when children have children.
And so, yes, I was talking about these very serious issues. And, in fact, as I mentioned before, two days ago on the front page of "The New York Times", they're talking about the same thing. The bottom line is we have a problem in this country, and the family is fracturing.