Rick Santorum Tells GOP to Stop Saying “Reagan” and Assuming Everything’ll Work Out

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Aug. 9 2014 6:41 PM

Rick Santorum Tells GOP to Stop Saying “Reagan” and Assuming Everything’ll Work Out

137502484-republican-presidential-candidate-former-u-s-sen-rick
Try saying “Santorum” instead.

Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

AMES, Iowa—Yesterday, as Rick Santorum began his speech at a GOP picnic in neighboring Boone County, an elderly man leaned over to check a fact with a friend.

"What was his job in Iowa?" he asked. "Was he from Boone?"

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"No, he's from Pennsylvania," said the gentleman's plugged-in friend. "He ran for president last year."

An easy mistake to make. Santorum won the 2012 Iowa caucuses narrowly (and after vote-counters blew the first count), after almost every other rival to Mitt Romney had hit a self-destruct button, and after visiting all 99 counties in the state. (He managed to do that two months before the vote.) At the county picnic, Santorum was constantly, politely interrupted by well-wishers who had met him before. He spent much of his downtime kibbitzing with Rep. Steve King, the local congressman, who kept looking at Santorum during his remarks about how the conservative movement needed to settle on a champion in 2016. (King endorsed Fred Thompson in the eleventh hour of the 2008 caucuses, and stayed neutral in 2012.)

"We have had the same message on the economy for 35 years," said Santorum. "Every single Republican that runs, they talk about the same three things on the economy. Number one, cut taxes. Number two, shrink the government. Number three, balance the budget. Can you imagine Ronald Reagan in 1979 giving a speech and saying, 'as Wendell Willkie said'?" It was a laugh line. "Because that's how long ago, 35 years, it was from Willkie to Reagan. Wendell Willkie!"

The next day, at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Santorum gave a more upbeat speech, but made sure to revisit the Reagan riff. "Go back to when Ronald Reagan, in 1979 and 1980, laid out his economic platform," he said. "He didn't do what we do now as Republicans. He didn't say, 35 years ago, this is what worked for America. But this is what we do! We stand up and say, we need to go back to Ronald Reagan. I love Ronald Reagan, but us referring back to Ronald Reagan would have been like Reagan referring back to Wendell Willkie!"

Santorum did win the 2012 caucuses in Iowa, and he does get received like a hero in the right settings. But early polling has found him mired close to where he was in 2011—in eighth place, around 6 percent support. He's responding by acting less like a conquering hero and more like a TED talker, ready to #disrupt the GOP, if anyone is listening.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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