Rick Santorum Should Not Apologize for Compromise

We have heard the candidates draw line after line in the sand, but that's no way to operate a government.

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Rick Santorum has been taking a lot of heat recently for saying he regretted his vote for the No Child Left Behind law, and explaining that he "made a mistake." Former President Bush wanted the law—which ushered in unprecedented federal authority into elementary and secondary education—and "when you're part of the team, sometimes you take one for the team," the former Pennsylvania senator said at a debate in Arizona.

People jeered, and former Gov. Mitt Romney, Santorum's chief rival for the nomination, has slammed Santorum for compromising small-government principles.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Rick Santorum.]

But why isn't Santorum being lauded for his vote? On its merits, the vote for No Child Left Behind is worth revisiting, to be sure—and not only for conservatives, who (now, anyway) don't want the federal government messing with local schools, but for liberals and moderates, too, who see that the testing requirements are onerous and that the demonization of teachers doesn't improve education. The federal government is already providing waivers for the law, a sign that while the intentions of the law may have been benevolent, the program overall hasn't worked out as planned.

Santorum may regret his vote. But he should be proud that he was willing to give it a shot, willing to compromise and to try a bold effort to improve schools. The campaign has been filled with extremist rhetoric and accusations, with the implicit pledge not to give in—ever—on anything. With anyone. One of the reasons Washington is so troubled at the moment is that too many people seem to believe they should get their way, all the time. In fact, the government is made up of three branches of government, and populated by people from dramatically different backgrounds and perspectives. It's not only immature, but utterly irrational, to vote only for legislation (particularly large appropriations bills) that include only what one person wants. Voting against an entire spending bill, a package that includes critical and popular federal programs, just because it includes an undesirable program or earmark isn't being principled. It's being inflexible, selfish, and irresponsible. Santorum may have voted for a spending package with the (rightfully) derided "Bridge to Nowhere" in it, but he didn't "fight" for it, as Romney accused Santorum of doing. He just voted for the whole package, warts and all, because that's what it means to be a legislator. You have to compromise.

[Read Susan Milligan: Why It's Not Worth Slamming Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum on Earmarks]

So far, we have heard the candidates (including Santorum) draw line after line in the sand. They promise to sign executive orders on day one, undoing laws debated and negotiated after months of talks and compromise. They want to try again with the line-item veto (even though courts struck it down), giving them the authority to undo what a Congress of 535 people have painstakingly worked out to accommodate a wide swath of demographic and ideological interests. They won't apologize for anything, won't compromise on their principles. That may sound good to an angry political base in a campaign—and the same is true for Democrats. But it's no way to operate a government.

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