Hmm. Wonder who the “conservative” is and who the “moderate” is in this scenario. In Washington state last night, Rick Santorum recounted the last 30 years of presidential election history, pointing out that, when Republicans run as moderates, they invariably lose, but, when they run as conservatives, they have greater success:

“We want a conservative nominee because that’s our best chance of winning. Look at the races in the last 30 years [in which] we nominated a moderate — [John] McCain, [Bob] Dole, Gerald Ford,” Santorum said Thursday night in Washington state, according to CNN. “When George [H.W.] Bush ran for reelection back in 1992, after raising taxes and increasing spending. They all ran as moderates. We all lost.” …

“Every time we’ve run as a conservative, we’ve won,” Santorum said. “Why? Because Americans want a choice. If it’s a difference between somebody, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, you know what, this country is going to probably … stick with the person they know. We need to have a sharp contrast. Someone who paints a very different vision for America.”

Santorum has staked his candidacy on the idea that he is the true conservative in a race of counterfeits (incidentally, “counterfeit” is also the term Ron Paul has used to brand Santorum). His impeccable credentials on social issues make that claim particularly believable, especially to casual observers, but is he actually more conservative than Romney? It could be that Romney is extremely — you might even say severely — conservative in a less obvious sense, as E.J. Dionne Jr. argues:

There is a terrible bias in the mainstream media that judges “moderation” almost entirely in relation to positions on social issues such as abortion or gay marriage. The media love these issues because they often involve sex, which everyone likes to read about, and do not demand elaborate explanations, charts or tables.

Go right on social issues, and the extremist charge can’t be far behind. But the media rarely peg an extreme economic conservative as “extreme” because doing so requires tedious math-laden paragraphs. Besides, people in pinstriped suits who are driven by money don’t seem “extreme.”

So here’s a counterintuitive argument: These primaries have damaged the Republican candidates’ images in the short run. But in the long run, they may yet help Romney — if he prevails — because by comparison with Santorum and Newt Gingrich, he seems “moderate,” and his supporters are more “moderate” than the voters backing the other guys. And Romney has been on so many sides of so many issues that pundits can arbitrarily imagine their own Romney.

My friend and colleague Matt Miller wrote recently that “everyone knows Romney is basically a pragmatic centrist.” No, “everyone” does not know this. The evidence from his tax plan, in fact, is that he’s an extremist for the privileged.

When it comes to his plans for the economy and entitlement reform, in other words, Romney is not a pragmatic centrist. The solutions he intends to implement when it comes to tax reform, for example, come entirely from the right side of the aisle; he wants to enact an across-the-board, 20 percent rate cut for every American, abolish the alternative minimum tax and the death tax, and reduce the corporate tax rate to 25 percent. All of this doesn’t necessarily make him more conservative than Rick Santorum, but it does make him more conservative than Obama.

All of which is to say: Rick Santorum’s point has relevance not only now while the primary process is ongoing and Republican voters still have the chance to choose the candidate they think actually is most conservative. His point also has relevance for the general election, no matter who becomes the GOP nominee. Mitt Romney has moved significantly to the right in his rhetoric during the primary and his tendency will probably be to move back to the center during the general election. That might be good strategy on an issue or two (immigration, perhaps), but, in general, Romney — if he does become the nominee — should run as the conservative he’s purported to be in the primary, not as the moderate Obama and the MSM are counting on him to be in the general.