Santorum's debate struggle shows why Congress isn't the mother of presidents

Rick Santorum, left, stands next to  Mitt Romney before the start of a Republican presidential debate
Rick Santorum, left, stands next to Mitt Romney before the start of a Republican presidential debate ASSOCIATED PRESS

MESA, Ariz. — Rick Santorum's attempts this week to explain his voting record in the Senate help illustrate a key dynamic of presidential politics: Congress may be the birthplace of presidential ambitions, but it's often the graveyard of presidential campaigns.

Backroom deals, compromises and tradeoffs may make Congress work, but they can look awful to voters.

They're a top reason why the country seldom elects members of Congress to the presidency. Over half a century, only one man from Congress has won the presidency in his own right. And that man, President Barack Obama, barely had a record in the Senate before launching his campaign.

"Members of the House and Senate are at a disadvantage in presidential campaigns," said Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Minnesota. "The longer the legislative record, the more vulnerable you are as a candidate. It's a field day for opposition researchers, as we saw in this week's debate."

Indeed, Santorum, who had surged into the top tier of the 2012 campaign since the last debate nearly a month earlier, found his voting record questioned and challenged throughout the debate Wednesday night in Arizona.

He served in Congress for 16 years, from 1991 to 2007, four in the House of Representatives and 12 in the Senate. Despite a solidly conservative record most of the time, Santorum did cast votes that now look suspect to conservative Republicans, and he struggled to explain that.

On one, he strived to make clear why he supported former President George W. Bush's move to expand the federal role in education, the No Child Left Behind Act.

"I voted for that. It was against the principles I believed in, but, you know, when you're part of the team, sometimes you take one for the team, for the leader, and I made a mistake," he said.

When the audience of Republicans groaned audibly, Santorum looked at them and said, "You know, politics is a team sport, folks."

On another, he tried to balance his opposition to federal aid to family planning groups such as Planned Parenthood with his vote for Title X family planning under the 1970 Public Health Service Act, which does exactly that.

"I've always opposed Title X funding, but it's included in a large appropriation bill that includes a whole host of other things," he said.

Moreover, he said, he pushed to add federal money for programs that teach young people to abstain from sex.

"I think I was making it clear that, while I have a personal ... objection to it, even though I don't support it, that I voted for bills that included it," he said.

That kind of tradeoff is common in Congress. But it is more understandable to Washington insiders than to the public, particularly when voters are looking at it later with an eye on the one part they do not like.

"Members of Congress do have voting records that can be sliced and diced any way you want them," said Jessica Taylor, a senior analyst at the Rothenberg Political Report. "They have to vote for some things even when they don't agree with every single thing in them."

That's particularly true if a member is also part of the party leadership in the Congress, as Santorum was in the Senate. It's still awfully hard to explain in a campaign.

Perhaps the best — or worst — example came in the 2004 campaign, when Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry became the poster child for congressional flexibility when he tried to explain his conflicting votes for financing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it," he said, a statement that launched a thousand late-night comedy routines and helped doom his campaign.

Obama, by comparison, didn't have much of a record. He served only two years in the Senate before launching his campaign for the presidency.

In the Illinois Senate, he did have a seven-year record, including opposition to proposals to declare any aborted fetus still showing signs of life as a "born alive infant" entitled to legal protections. But he also voted "present" 129 times rather than taking sides on some other issues, a tactic the media described in the 2008 campaign as a way of possibly avoiding politically tough choices.


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