Campaigning in former President Ronald Reagan's hometown before last week's Illinois primary, GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum asserted that he was the only candidate "who stands on the pillars of what Ronald Reagan built as the modern Republican Party."
Speaking in the shadow of a statue of Reagan, Santorum proclaimed: "Let the voice of Reagan be heard across this land."
And it isn't just Santorum: During the Republican presidential debates, Reagan's name was invoked nearly 250 times by the GOP field.
But many historians argue that if Reagan had a true heir, he or she might raise taxes, compromise with Democrats and put aside the notion of taming the deficit during an economic downturn.
During his two terms in the White House in the '80s and as California's governor in the late '60s and early '70s, Reagan did all those things.
"I'm not sure how well Ronald Reagan would do in today's highly partisan environment," said Stephen Knott, an author of two books on Reagan and professor of national security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. "If he tried to do today what he did in compromising on a budget dispute with House Democrats in 1982, he'd be crucified."
Indeed, the historical record clearly shows that Reagan was much more conciliatory, pragmatic and centrist than any of today's major GOP presidential candidates, who have proposed such things as deporting millions of illegal immigrants and limiting contraception as they vow not to raise taxes under any circumstances.
"Republicans are trying to use Ronald Reagan as a symbol for all the things he stood for," said George Lakoff, author of several books that show Republicans have been better than Democrats in framing political issues. "But they may be calling up an image that doesn't fit."
To be sure, Reagan is rightly remembered for his disdain of government -- perhaps the single feature of his presidency that animates today's Republicans. Immediately after being sworn in January 1981, Reagan said that "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."
He also cast a baleful eye on welfare programs in a way that resonated with many Americans, often repeating the unsubstantiated story about the "welfare queen" who tooled around Chicago in a Cadillac.
Remnants of the catchphrase have seeped into this year's campaign, with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich accusing President Barack Obama of being the "food stamp president," a phrase critics say has the same not-so-subtle racial undertones that Reagan sometimes used to energize the right.
Gingrich has boasted he is the true heir to Reagan, claiming to be a key lieutenant of the president -- though he once accused Reagan of "trying to score a touchdown for liberalism, for the liberal welfare state" with his 1982 tax hike.
In his speech in Dixon, Ill., Santorum compared his outsider candidacy to Reagan's insurgency bid in 1976, when he challenged the GOP's establishment choice, President Gerald Ford. But a more apt analogy could be made between Reagan's re-election bid in 1984 and Obama's this year.
Both Reagan and Obama entered office facing the worst recessions since the Great Depression, with unemployment reaching historic numbers. But the economy brightened for Reagan, in time for his Morning in America campaign, and it seems to be turning around for Obama as he gears up his re-election campaign.
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