RONALD Reagan typically included in his State of the Union speeches a reference to a constitutional amendment restricting abortion. And, typically, he went about his business, the next day and the days after, ignoring his own words.
As is perhaps true of Mitt Romney, Reagan's feelings about abortion and other “life” issues were somewhat elastic. Yet Reagan remains a beloved figure among today's supporters of Rick Santorum, including those who consider themselves “Reagan Republicans.”
Consider that Reagan is beloved today not because he advanced the anti-abortion cause but because he restored belief in American exceptionalism, worked to shrink government, talked tough with our enemies, cut taxes and grew the economy. This is what Romney could do as well, but he must first convince GOP voters that he deserves the nomination.
We confess to being disappointed that Romney doesn't have the nomination already in hand. Part of the problem is Republican emphasis on social issues, which makes Santorum appealing. Part of it is Romney himself — his perplexing inability to close the deal, including the dead heat Tuesday with Santorum in Romney's home state of Michigan. Voters there would be wise to think toward November, and the face-off with Obama.
Republicans favoring Santorum in next Tuesday's Oklahoma primary should do the same. That's when their idealism will face a reality check. If Barack Obama is given another term, the values antithetical to Santorum supporters will be advanced for the next four years. During those years, Obama would choose one or more justices for the U.S. Supreme Court.
No candidate in the race will be able to do any more about abortion than Reagan could do. It's clear, though, that Obama could do a lot to diminish religious freedom in this area. What would stop him? Certainly not the Supreme Court if Obama can reverse the narrow conservative majority. Only the election of the Republican nominee would put the brakes on.
Romney has the stuff to defeat a sitting president whose popularity is on the rise, whose campaign coffers are massive and whose operatives will wage the most angry, divisive campaign in history. We know this because Obama's first term is characterized by angry, divisive government.
Part of the appeal of Santorum is selection of a man thought to be more capable of taking Obama on, particularly in the debates. This assumes that swing-state voters will make their November choice based on debating skills rather than governing skills. It assumes that independents won't be focused on the economy but on the GOP nominee's charisma and right-to-life credentials.
Reagan beat a sitting president, capitalizing on the extant bad economy — as well as on Jimmy Carter's leadership lapses. He didn't beat Carter because he was anti-abortion. He won because he offered to take the country in a new direction. He attracted Republicans, independents and “Reagan Democrats.” The 2012 Republican nominee must do likewise.
Mitt Romney doesn't have Reagan's cache. No one does. But who has the best chance of withstanding what will come against him in the fall? Who can fix a troubled economy? Who can reset foreign relations and affirm American exceptionalism? Ask not who would be the most vocal opponent of abortion but who can run this country.
At this point, though, only one question needs asking: Who can put together the building blocks of constituencies that will defeat Obama? The answer is Mitt Romney.