Even by the standards of this unusual primary season, Rick Santorum has had his share of strange outbursts that have given voters pause. College is for elitists. He doesn't care about the unemployment rate. You might as well vote for President Obama if Mitt Romney is nominated. And so on. But arguably his strangest outburst of all - one in which he managed to attack President Obama's parenting judgment, the First Family's privacy and our neighboring country of Mexico - received scant attention this past week.
The backstory: Malia Obama, 13, went to Oaxaca, Mexico (a charming colonial town, pictured above, with magnificent ruins nearby) for spring break on a school trip (the school apparently has a longstanding relationship with charitable projects in Oaxaca). This news popped up early in the week on a few websites, though the White House was eager for journalists (in keeping with longstanding practice) to avoid reporting on the president's children. A major earthquake in southern Mexico, however, forced the White House to issue a statement confirming that yes, Malia was indeed in Mexico, and doing just fine.
So far, you'd be right to think there is nothing here for a candidate seeking the opposition party's nomination to jump on and make a campaign issue. Correction: you would have been right most other campaign years. But this is 2012, and Rick Santorum had other ideas when he went on Glenn Beck's show and ripped into the Obamas:
"The President's actions should reflect what his administration is saying. If the administration is saying that it's not safe to have people down there, then just because you can send 25 Secret Service agents doesn't mean you should do it. You should set an example. I think that's what Presidents do."
Santorum's attack was both tasteless and ignorant. If there is one thing all candidates for president should stipulate (and this has been a well-respected axiom in recent years, despite the otherwise vitriolic tenor of political discourse) is that they will respect each other's families, and that should be particularly true for kids living (through no fault of their own) in the White House. And, for what it's worth, attacks on the Obamas' parenting aren't likely to sit well with independent voters who might have issues with the president's policies, but empathize and admire his devotion to his family.
Meanwhile, there is a factual and more substantive issue here as well, which is what's happening in Mexico. Santorum talks about "having people down there" as if he is referring to military advisers in the middle of a war zone, when in fact millions of Americans vacation in many parts of Mexico without encountering any problems. Santorum is factually wrong in saying the administration is telling people not to go to Mexico. There are State Department advisories covering parts of the country, but no blanket warning against travel to Mexico. Which is why Malia Obama's school (not the White House) decided to take the trip in the first place.
Santorum is not alone, of course, in having an inaccurate impression of Mexico. It's understandable that Americans with no firsthand experience of Mexico might wonder about safety in tourist areas, given the media coverage of considerable drug violence in certain northern Mexican cities. But Santorum, as a presidential candidate who touts his foreign policy credentials, should know better. Or at least he should know better than to sound off about what he doesn't know about. It is irresponsible for him to advance a distorted, caricaturized image of an important U.S. ally and trading partner.
Delve commends to the candidate this front-page article from last Sunday's Washington Post. It was, refreshingly, a story about Mexico that wasn't about drug violence or immigration (very important stories, but not the only ones), but was instead about how the country has become a middle class society. The story mentions in passing that Querétaro, a flourishing colonial city north of Mexico City, has a murder rate roughly comparable to that of Wisconsin. Maybe Santorum should check it out next Spring Break.