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Santorum may have lost debate, but he won point about politics

February 23, 2012 | 11:32 am

Santorum in Mesa
The pundits have spoken: Rick Santorum lost Wednesday's debate. But the aspect of his performance cited by his detractors -- his defense of insider-ish political virtues like party loyalty and horse-trading -- made him seem more presidential to me.

The rap against Santorum has been that he's an unguided missile. (Well, that's one rap; another is that he's a Satan-obsessed culture warrior.) But successful politicians, including successful presidents, are not lone rangers. They must cooperate, and compromise, with other politicians to achieve their ends, just as they must be willing -- as President Lyndon B. Johnson was in twisting arms in Congress on civil rights -- to press other politicians to subordinate their own views as part of a larger alliance.

Consider Santorum's admission at the debate that he voted for George W. Bush's signature No Child Left Behind initiative even though he had doubts about it. "I have to admit, I voted for that," Santorum said. "It was against the principles I believed in, but, you know, when you're part of the team, sometimes you take one for the team, for the leader, and I made a mistake." When the audience booed, Santorum pleaded: "You know, politics is a team sport, folks."  And he's right.

Santorum also took heat from Mitt Romney for having endorsed his fellow Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter for reelection over conservative Pat Toomey. Santorum's explanation, as Romney accurately described it, was "tortuous": The conservative Santorum endorsed the moderate Specter in exchange for assurances from Specter that, as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, he would support Bush's Supreme Court nominees.

Was the approval of John Roberts and Sam Alito an acceptable trade-off from a conservative perspective for Specter's support of Obama's health care legislation? Perhaps not, but the trading itself is what politicians (including presidents) do. If Romney is elected president he'll be doing some trading, too, if he hopes to be successful.

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COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS: Presidential Election 2012

 -- Michael McGough

Credit: Don Emmert / AFP/Getty Images

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