Reagan, Santorum, & the Nervous Nellies

Listening to the panic within the GOP establishment about the possibility of Rick Santorum being the Republican presidential nominee reminds me of 1976 and 1980. The criticisms I hear today of Santorum by GOP insiders are similar to the ones leveled against the “outsider” back in those earlier presidential campaigns. The outsider at that time was a guy named Ronald Reagan.

I remember clearly how adamant his Republican critics were that it would be an embarrassment to have Reagan at the head of the ticket: he was a grade-B movie actor, we were told; he had a tendency to say foolish things; he was too focused on the problems and didn’t have a “sunny” enough disposition. Can you believe that last one, now that everyone points to Reagan’s optimism? But back in the day, he was the one who came across to some as too hardline—he would turn off the moderate voters.

As today, we were gravely informed that disaster would befall the GOP if Reagan were the candidate. So, in 1976, the GOP establishment lined up behind Gerald Ford. Of course, he was the sitting president, so much of that was to be expected. But the venom directed at Reagan was unceasing. In particular, we were assured that a prolonged primary season, one that lasted right up to the convention itself, would destroy any chance Ford would have against Carter. It did go to the convention, and Reagan only barely lost the nomination. While it’s true that Ford lost to Carter, blaming Reagan for that would be to omit how badly Ford performed as the candidate. It also would dismiss the effects of Watergate and Ford’s pardon of Nixon. No, Reagan’s challenge was not the reason Ford lost; he accomplished that all by himself.

Again, in 1980, the Nervous Nellies of the squishy middle wanted someone else besides Reagan, whether it was Bob Dole, Howard Baker, or George H. W. Bush. We were gravely informed once again that a Reagan candidacy would be a disaster because he couldn’t draw in the independent voters. The economy at the time was eerily similar to what it is today. There was a weak incumbent—Carter—just like there is today with Obama. Yet the polls still predicted a Carter victory right up to the week before the election. Imagine all the “I told you so’s” being whispered among the Republican moderates. Well, that election was a blowout for Reagan. The rest is history.

That’s why I’m not swayed by our current crop of Nervous Nellies. They’ve been wrong before; they can be wrong again. What we need is someone who stands for genuine Biblical principles in government—no, that’s not a theocracy—and who’s willing to take on the incumbent philosophically as well as on specific policy issues. We need someone who can explain “why” we need to change our perception of government, not merely tell us “what” he’s going to do. Reagan was good at the “why” as well as the “what.” Santorum deals with foundational thinking, whereas Romney doesn’t seem to have a foundation.

By the way, do you recall that Romney won Michigan this week? Well, you recalled incorrectly. It turns out that the delegates are split 50/50 between Romney and Santorum. In most worlds, that’s called a tie. This isn’t over yet.