Howard Dean and Rick Santorum take stage

Peter Larson

College Republicans and College Democrats combined forces Tuesday night, hosting a debate they hoped will promote an ongoing campus dialogue “on policy, not politics.”

The event was the first time in recent history the two groups have collaborated, according to College Republicans President Brittany Bull.

About 400 people packed the lower section of the Pick-Staiger Concert Hall to hear former Democratic Gov. Howard Dean and former Republican Sen. Rick Santorum spar on issues ranging from tax increases to frustration with a polarized Washington.

What attendees heard were, in large part, partisan monologues from each of the former politicians, punctuated by advice to the young voters in the audience.

Prof. Adam Goodman, director of NU’s Center for Leadership, served as the moderator, taking questions from students submitted before and during the event.

The night began with a question on the waning excitement among young voters since the 2008 presidential election and moved through national issues before moving on to foreign policy.

Dean, who won the coin toss to speak first, began the evening by taking a sarcastic swipe at University community members gathered for the event, calling them “a very moderate audience.” He stressed, however, the importance of not losing enthusiasm.

“You’ve elected your first president,” Dean said. “Don’t blow it. You have to stay involved because democracy is a living thing.”

Dean and Santorum differed fundamentally in their views on the newest generation of voters. Santorum anecdotally cited a survey about young people’s unwillingness to come down definitively on one side of an issue, something which he said can cripple their ability to vote objectively.

“You are reticent to say something is wrong or something you don’t like,” Santorum said. “The concern that raises in my mind is that we have become very accepting of everything…. The consequence of that is that there are in fact things that are good and things that are bad.”

Dean disagreed, saying it is a good thing young people shy away from making hard line moral judgments about other people.

In general, the speakers observed the timed format of the debate and addressed the audience instead of each other. When health care came up though, Goodman’s repeated attempts to enforce time limits proved futile.

The two politicians shot back and forth, prompting laughter from the audience.

“The health care bill does not tell you which insurance policy you have to take,” Dean said.

“Sure it does,” Santorum said. “It tells you exactly which one you have to take.”

“How does it do that?” Dean replied.

Medill freshman Danny Russell, who attended the debate, said the moment of squabbling was not representative of the entire debate.

“I was actually surprised at how much they agreed on,” Russell said. “There were a lot of topics where Santorum would look at Dean and just nod in agreement because he wouldn’t have much more to say.”

Neither Santorum nor Dean currently holds elected office, although there is rumor that Santorum may run for president in 2012.

“Don’t talk about all the states you’re going to visit in one night,” Dean advised Santorum on a possible presidential bid, alluding to his infamous “Dean Scream.”

Even on the points they did disagree on, Santorum said the disagreement was a necessary component of the political process.

“There are big issues in this country that Howard Dean and Rick Santorum are not going to agree on and probably will never agree on,” Santorum said. “And that’s OK. That’s what democracy is all about.”

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