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Santorum Stands Apart on Coming Together

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(Des Moines) -- It's a measure of the frustration with Washington's ongoing partisan stalemate that even in a GOP presidential race, participants in the Iowa caucuses -- ostensibly a supremely partisan exercise -- routinely asked Republican candidates how they would instill more cooperation between the parties in the nation's capital. The answers usually followed familiar tracks: Gov. Rick Perry said he got results in Texas by working across the aisle and Gov. Mitt Romney pointed to his success in dealing with an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature in Massachusetts. Sen. Rick Santorum offered a much different answer.

Referring to his days in the U.S. House and Senate, Santorum said bipartisan cooperation has broken down because conservatives, finally, are standing up. In his telling, the bipartisan compromises that were much more common from the 1950s into the 1980s amounted to "Republicans compromising to do less of what Democrats wanted to do... it was always growing government, but less so," as he put it at a campaign stop in Marshalltown just before the Iowa vote. Now, he argues, compromise comes less often because Republicans are showing more fortitude. "The reason we can't get compromise is because Republicans are finally saying 'enough'," he said.

Many former members, and many academic analysts, pin the breakdown of bipartisanship on factors like gerrymandered Congressional districts that force House members to worry more about base voters in primaries than swing voters in general elections; the role of money in politics; the rise of overtly partisan media of left and right; and the decline in social interaction between legislators. But Santorum's vision is a very different interpretation, one that equates compromise, as it has been practiced, with capitulation. It's a vision that many conservative Republicans share: Polls show they are much less likely than other groups to agree that politicians should compromise with others from opposing views.

While there may be an element of truth to Santorum's argument that compromise, in the long post-World War II era, usually resulted in more government, it's too simplistic as history and too pessimistic as a compass for future action. My experience at the Bipartisan Policy Center has proven bipartisan compromises on significant issues are possible without either side fundamentally capitulating to the other. BPC's work on a variety of issues -- among them debt, health, energy and national security -- proves it is possible to reach solutions to big American problems without surrendering party ideology or core principles. Indeed, our work shows that the most realistic way for either side to advance its core principles is usually in the context of far-reaching agreements that draw support from across the political spectrum.

Maybe the best example of that principle was the work of BPC's Debt Reduction Task Force co-chaired by Senator Pete Domenici and Dr. Alice Rivlin. Though the group contained strong Democrats and Republicans, it provided a legislative framework for addressing the nation's long-term debt crisis that includes entitlement reform and tax increases. The work of their 19-member commission, and reports from other groups like President Obama's Simpson-Bowles commission, demonstrated that there are avenues for expanding opportunities that will attract both Democrats and Republicans.

The notion that there should be endless legislative war until Democrats surrender to the GOP vision because that's what Republicans allegedly have been doing for years with the Democratic vision is unnecessarily bleak. Almost everyone agrees that government must decline as a share of the economy from its current elevated peak -- in that sense Santorum is right that the direction of policy in the years ahead will be to somewhat restrain Washington's role in the economy. But within that trajectory there is undeniably room for public investments and a rethinking of how we both raise revenue and provide entitlement benefits that taps the best thinking in both parties -- and ultimately builds a consensus broad enough to drive change commensurate with the challenges we face.

And the truth is, without such consensus, voters will be asking candidates about the partisan breakdown in Washington for a long time to come.