If Republican Voters Want Someone With Strong Executive Experience, Why Are They Voting for Santorum?

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March 19 2012 2:42 PM

Executive Indecision

Republican voters say they want someone with strong executive experience. So why are they voting for Rick Santorum?

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum addresses an election night party in Steubenville, Ohio, March 6, 2012.
Rick Santorum has been succeeding despite a lack of executive experience

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images.

In 2008, Republicans argued that Barack Obama couldn't be an effective president because he had never run anything. Since his inauguration, they have never let go of this argument. In a typical exchange during the BP oil spill, Sean Hannity and GOP strategist Ed Gillespie agreed that the feeling America was on the wrong track could be traced "back to the fact that [Obama] doesn't have executive experience." Indeed, when Rick Santorum was praising Sarah Palin as a vice presidential pick in 2008 at a speech at Ave Maria (yes, the same speech where he talked about Satan), he cited her executive experience as Alaska’s governor for why she was more qualified than Barack Obama. 

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Parties out of power often nominate candidates who dominate in the areas where the incumbents are weak. So if you were a betting person, you'd put the college fund on Republicans nominating a candidate with executive experience. That was partially what made Mitt Romney such an attractive candidate for Republicans to run against Obama. He not only has executive experience, he has a lot of it. And he has executive experience in turning things around, a useful attribute when there is a large perception the country needed a change of direction. The passion for executive experience is also what makes the Santorum boomlet so unexpected. Like Barack Obama, he has no executive experience.

George W. Bush famously called himself the "decider," to a lot of snickering. But, to be fair, it did accurately sum up what a commander-in-chief does. A president faces few easy decisions; if a decision is easy, it gets made at lower levels. So it stands to reason that if we're looking for a person to fill a decision-making post, we might want to consider someone who has built an organization, made it work efficiently, and made tough decisions when the stakes are high. That's why when Fox News asked Republican voters in January whether executive experience was important, 88 percent said it was.

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Of course, this line of argument assumes that voters behave in a logical fashion, which they don't. Republican voters consistently say they want a candidate who can beat Obama and who understands the economy. By a large majority, they think Mitt Romney is that candidate. Still, large numbers of these very same people are voting for Santorum. 

This frustrates Romney, who at times struggles to remind voters what this election is all about. “What do you want in your next president?” Romney asked at a rally just before the Michigan primary. “What do want him to be able to do? I believe you want him to create jobs and get this economy going again. … I hope you recognize the best way to get this economy going is to have somebody who’s actually had a job in the real economy to get it going, and I have.”

I hope you recognize ...

It's as if Romney was trying to focus the voters on first principles. This is an election about the economy, and you value executive experience—I know about the former and have a lot of the latter, so golly, what's the problem? 

That logic is the message of Romney's latest ad in Illinois attacking Rick Santorum. "He's never run a business or a state," says the narrator who calls Santorum "another economic lightweight," presumably referring to that other person who lacked executive experience, President Obama.

Rick Santorum, not surprisingly, is no longer making as much of executive experience. When an Iowa voter asked him about his lack of executive experience ahead of that state’s caucus, Santorum argued that legislative experience was what a president really needed. "The experience Governor Romney keeps touting out there is not the experience you need to be president," he said. "A CEO directs people to do what the CEO thinks is right to do and those people work in his chain of command. Senators and congressmen don't work for the president. You've got to work with people, not order people." When Santorum cites his national security experience, he is referring to his eight years managing legislation on the Armed Services committee. 

The former Pennsylvania senator is making the best case he can, and voters may be buying it. Though he has none of the experience they once prized, in the latest CBS/New York Times poll of Republicans, Santorum scored close to his rivals when voters were asked whether the candidates could handle the duties of commander-in-chief. One reason that Santorum is doing well despite his lack of executive experience is that he does well with voters who want a president to share their values and take clear stands on social issues. Executive decision making isn't so important when it comes to these issues. 

While almost all presidents had some kind of executive background, our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, was one of the few presidents who didn't have any. Santorum has compared himself to Ronald Reagan, but no candidate can get away with comparing himself to Lincoln without being laughed off the stage. (Candidate Obama once tried and was rightly mocked—and later, even mocked himself.) The best comparison Santorum can make for a senator who didn't have executive experience but was able to make decisions is Barack Obama. Since he's trying to run Obama out of office, that's obviously not a comparison he wants to make.

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