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Bridge the partisan divide

| Wednesday, September 17, 2014

To many, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Republican, represents everything wrong with American politics. For especially this reason, I will attend his talk tonight at 5 p.m. in the Carey Auditorium of the Hesburgh Library. I hope you do too.

The late Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W. Va., the longest-serving senator in U.S. history, referred to Santorum as “the poison that has settled in upon this chamber.”  To others, he is sincere, family-oriented and fighting to restore America’s traditional values. Some call this man, who last held public office when we were in middle school and lost his 2006 reelection bid by nearly 20 percent, politically irrelevant. Others disagree and point to his second-place finish in the 2012 Republican presidential primary as evidence.

I judge him differently. Running for Senate in 2006, Santorum concluded a campaign video inside a WWE wrestling ring with the line: “It makes more sense to wrestle with America’s problems than with each other.” He boasted of teaming up with Hillary Clinton to limit inappropriate material in children’s video games and with former Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., to make college affordable.

Let’s force him to highlight these often-overlooked aspects of his career instead of engaging in the same divisive rhetoric that Ann Coulter’s visit brought to campus last year.

Ann Coulter and Rick Santorum, both recent speakers whom Notre Dame College Republicans invited to campus, are different breeds of polarizing. The first is a pundit, the second a former congressman and firebrand. Ann Coulter’s visit bitterly divided our campus in a way that no one wants to relive. Though certainly not to the same degree, Rick Santorum also has the potential to deepen this campus divide, stirring up greater antipathy between different factions of politically active students and encouraging those who aren’t politically involved to write-off political engagement as frustrating and not worthwhile.

This is an opportunity for a more constructive political discussion at Notre Dame.

I recently helped start bridgeND, a new campus political and policy club where Democrats, Republicans and all those in-between challenge each other on issues of national public policy and generate actionable legislative proposals.  Taking on the roles of Democratic, Republican and independent policymakers, we try to understand views different from our own and to negotiate agreements where our elected leaders have not. We’re open to all voices willing to talk about politics in new ways, and I believe national figures like Rick Santorum can positively contribute to this goal.  Here are a few questions I would ask:

1. Sen. Santorum, you collaborated with Sen. Lieberman to write the Savings for Working Families Act of 2005 to make college more affordable for low-income families.  You no longer believe that college is for everyone — and you have a right to change your opinion — so without endorsing the policy, can you describe the process of how you and Lieberman found common ground on this issue?

2. How did you and Hillary Clinton find common ground on limiting inappropriate material in children’s video games, and how did you convince your senate colleagues to pass the bill?

3. You mentioned in an interview with Notre Dame’s Irish Rover that candidates outside the political establishment are often unrightfully discounted. How can we constructively include “outsider” candidates in the national discourse?

4. If you were president, what issue would you champion after the midterms and how would you work with Democrats to pass it?

If you like Rick Santorum, ask how — given that neither Republicans nor Democrats will be able to impose their agenda on the other after the 2014 midterms — he would negotiate with Democrats to protect religious freedom.

If you don’t like Rick Santorum, ask him why he believes the goal of college for all is “snobbish.” Ask him to bring in his personal experience so we can understand why he takes what some would call radical views. Ask him what his interests are in opposing abortion even in cases of rape.

A school of this caliber should welcome this dialogue.

These are questions Republicans, Democrats and everyone in between can support.  We have shown before that Democrats and Republicans have the potential to work together to promote constructive politics.  Last fall, both College Democrats and College Republicans sponsored “Mortgaging the Future,” which brought hundreds of students to hear a legendary investor speak on how unsustainable entitlements promised to baby-boomers threaten our generation’s financial future. Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Tom Friedman spoke of how the “overflow crowd at Notre Dame” indicated the rise of “young people to design their own solutions.” This kind of conversation can happen again.

We cannot complain about our toxic, polarized political climate unless we offer meaningful alternatives. Bringing polarizing political figures to campus is not necessarily a bad thing, and we can create a more constructive conversation than the one perpetuated in Washington, D.C. We might prefer Republicans or Democrats, but the relationships between the parties’ prominent figures matter as much as either party itself. The relationship between the two parties will decide the future of our democracy, and the future of our democracy — us, the students — deserves better. After all, Sen. Santorum could be our next president.

Sean Long is a senior living in St. Edward’s Hall.  He is the co-founder and president of bridgeND, a new campus political group devoted to bridging the partisan divide on campus and in Congress.  He can be reached at [email protected].

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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