When I visited Ronald Reagan’s boyhood home in Dixon, in 1999, the former president was on the cusp between a contemporary and a historic figure. Reagan had been out of office for 10 years, but many of the elderly docents at the museum still remembered him as a young man.
“All my girlfriends wanted to walk past his lifeguard station,” one woman told me. “They said, ‘He’s so handsome.’”
Rick Santorum visited Dixon on Monday, in an effort to portray himself to Illinois primary voters as the heir to Ronald Reagan, the most revered figure in the modern Republican primary.
On a makeshift stage, Santorum stood in front of the Riverfront statue of a young Reagan on a horse.
During his speech, Santorum, a candidate in today’s Illinois Republican primary election, compared himself to Reagan, who challenged President Gerald Ford in the 1976 Republican presidential primaries.
Santorum said the GOP doesn’t have an incumbent president now, but the party establishment has chosen its candidate. He was referring to Mitt Romney, although he never uttered his chief rival’s name.
Reagan lost to Ford, but won the party’s nomination and then the presidency 4 years later. And he moved America in a conservative direction, Santorum said.
“In the late 1970s, liberal wasn’t a dirty word,” the former Pennsylvania senator said. “Now, liberals don’t like to be called liberals.”
He also contended Obama had gone around the world apologizing for the United States.
“Ronald Reagan would never apologize for the greatest country in the world,” Santorum said.
The difference between 1999 and today is that Reagan, who died in 2004, is now a historic figure whose presidency is either unremembered by, or irrelevant to the majority of Americans. And yet the GOP still persists in identifying itself as the Party of Reagan, holding annual Lincoln-Reagan Day Dinners, and searching for a presidential candidate who can restore conservatism to its 1980s glory days. Even Mitt Romney, who once reminded a Republican audience that “Ronald Reagan is dead,” is running an ad promoting himself as the Republican with the most exciting platform since Reagan.
Modeling a party after a long-dead leader is a losing strategy, because most of the voters who elected him are dead, too. Consider this: the youngest voters eligible to cast a ballot for the Reagan Revolution of 1980 are now 50 years old. And it would be impossible to run a campaign on the issues that elected Reagan. You can’t run against communism, because the Cold War ended 23 years ago. You can’t promise to crack down on Cadillac-driving “welfare queens,” because, well, a country that would elect a black president isn’t going to tolerate race baiting.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the Republicans were able to thrive as a party of rural and suburban whites. In 1970, whites made up 87.5 percent of the population. Whites now make up 72.4 percent, the lowest proportion in history. Yet rather than adapting to a multicultural America, the Republican Party keeps trying to win with the Reagan Coalition. After Obama beats them again in November, they will have lost the popular vote in five of the last six elections. Put it this way: if this country still had the same ethnic makeup it did in 1972, John McCain would be president, based on his percentage of the white vote.
The good news, for the Republican Party and the two-party system in general, is that this is probably the Party of Reagan’s last stand. The Republicans actually have minority contenders for the nomination in 2016: Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. Reagan was the right man for his time, but that time was a long time ago.
Buy this book! Ward Room blogger Edward McClelland's book, Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President , is available Amazon. Young Mr. Obama includes reporting on President Obama's earliest days in the Windy City, covering how a presumptuous young man transformed himself into presidential material. Buy it now!