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Santorum’s off-the-cuff problem

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Esther Cepeda
March 19, 2012
— Rick Santorum never bores me. He’s like a batty relative who usually spouts craziness but sometimes makes a good point—albeit in such an offensive way that no one really gives him credit for his sensible suggestions.

Last month Santorum made headlines for saying that President Obama was a snob for wanting everyone to go to college. In that instance, Santorum might have given voice to middle- and low-income Americans who have interpreted Obama’s unceasing promotion of a college education as the solution to our economic problems as both a knock on their own lives and a fundamental lack of respect for the countless janitors, construction workers and hospitality workers who contribute mightily to our economy.


Instead, by implying that those who want everyone to have a fair shot at higher education were out-of-touch elites contemptuous of the masses, Santorum flubbed the opportunity to talk about how to harness the talents and work ethic of people who aren’t cut out for college, or who don’t want to spend their money on it.


So went his gaffe in Puerto Rico last week. Santorum got into hot water for saying that English would have to be the “main language” in order for the commonwealth to become a state.


“Like any other state, there has to be compliance with this and any other federal law,” he said during a campaign stop.


Poor Uncle Rick, so passionate about English being the official language of the United States that he momentarily forgot that there is no federal law mandating it. And in the process he missed the opportunity to say what his backpedaling press release so aptly articulated.


“What I want is for every child in Puerto Rico to speak English fluently, in addition to Spanish of course,” said a statement released as Santorum left the island. “As the son of an Italian immigrant myself, I continue to believe that English is the language of opportunity in America.”


English is the language of opportunity in the United States—and the world. As noted in a Washington Post story this past week on Mexico’s emerging middle class, more and more Mexican parents are securing English classes for their children. Countries around the globe have routinely taught their students more than one language, the second one is commonly English because bilinguality is universally valued.

Many Puerto Ricans already know the benefits of being bilingual—according to Census reports, more Puerto Ricans now live on the mainland than on the island. They’ve used their language and professional skills to flee a 15 percent unemployment rate.


But no, Santorum’s message—the impossible-to-oppose stance that it is important for young Puerto Ricans to learn English—was again lost in his verbal mishap and subsequent controversy about whether he’d forever flubbed his chance with the Latino vote.


Santorum has trouble communicating his ideas, but at least he has made the seemingly never-ending Republican nominating contest lively. I can’t wait to hear what drops out of his mouth next.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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