In his concession speech from Mars, Pennsylvania on Tuesday night, Rick Santorum gave President Obama a brief, perfunctory razzing before launching into a diatribe against his chief rival, Mitt Romney. Santorum justified his continued involvement in the Republican nomination process by arguing that there isn’t enough of a difference between Mitt Romney and President Obama, comparing his own campaign to Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign in 1976. “We don’t win by moving to the middle,” Santorum said. “We win by getting people in the middle to move to us.” Santorum cast himself as Reagan, the principled, far right conservative, and Romney as Gerald Ford, the compromising, weak centrist who won the 1976 nomination but lost the presidency to Jimmy Carter.
In reality, though, there is no Reagan in this race. In his proposed tax plan, Romney would slash taxes on the mega-rich, providing cuts averaging $150,000 for each top-one-percent earner. What would Reagan do? Well, after cutting taxes in 1981, the next year he implemented the single largest peacetime tax increase in American history. Romney has criticized Rick Santorum’s votes to raise the debt ceiling as a member of Congress but Reagan personally raised the debt ceiling 18 times during his time in office. Romney has “evolved” into an adamantly pro-life candidate, even vetoing the expansion of access to emergency contraception in Massachusetts because he believes that it “terminates life after conception”. Reagan, as governor, signed the Therapeutic Abortion Act, which widely expanded access to abortions for hundreds of thousands of California women.
Santorum also finds himself to Reagan’s right. While Reagan once said, “Church and state are, and must remain, separate,” Santorum said in February that he doesn’t “believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.” Santorum has also been a staunch opponent of gun control – opposing the Federal Assault Weapons Ban and Brady Bill. Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan became an outspoken advocate of expanded gun control at the state and federal level, endorsing a federal seven-day waiting period for the purchase of handguns.
All of this Reagan-centric posturing is notwithstanding the fact that Reagan himself, for all intents and purposes, wasn’t even a particularly great president. Apart from the fact that his deification occurred a decade after he left office – Gallup polls show his approval rating jumping over 20 points between 1992 and ’99 – under Reagan the national debt skyrocketed to $3 trillion. Reagan publicly opposed the Civil Rights Act, threatened the Voting Rights Act and even vetoed sanctions against the apartheid regime of South Africa. After it was discovered that he illegally sold weapons to Iran, and then lied about it, one-third of the country wanted Reagan to resign.
Santorum’s rationale for his continued presence in this race, despite the growing odds against him, is that he is the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, that he is the “principled” Reagan to Romney’s vulnerable Ford. However, it’s clear that both candidates are far to Reagan’s right, a man whose presidency is not the best subject for analogy anyway. The main difference between the candidates now, with Romney encroaching upon Santorum’s ideological niche, may be that only one of them, with delegate math in his favor, is nearly halfway to securing the Republican nomination.