On Monday night Mitt Romney addressed 400 Philadelphia-area Tea Party activists at their third annual convention. Speaking in a marble rotunda at the Franklin Institute, a science museum, under a high domed roof, Romney was framed on stage by large classical columns and an even larger statue of Benjamin Franklin, seated like President Lincoln at the memorial on the national mall. Behind Romney were eighteen attendees. I saw as many African-Americans, two, in that group as I did in the entire rest of the audience.
Now that Romney has sewn up the Republican nomination, he is beginning to pivot towards the center, hoping to undo the damage his party’s extremist primary wrought on his standing among Latinos and women. But at the same time conservatives must actively support him. To compete with President Obama’s formidable operation for amassing small donations, grassroots volunteerism and voter turnout requires a party base that is passionate about winning. So far, Romney lags far behind Obama in small donors and in setting up field offices in battleground states.
Romney’s speech was preceded by brief addresses from Republican candidates for Senate in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. (The Tri-state Philadelphia area represented at the event includes parts of Delaware and southern New Jersey.) The candidates were exactly what you might imagine: six middle-aged white men. Most wore business suits and recited Republican bromides. One, Tom Smith of Pennsylvania, was such a cliché that he actually introduced himself as “a farm boy who stumbled into business.” The crowd was unenthused, offering polite applause at introductions and only occasionally bestirring themselves to clap for red-meat lines such as calling for more aggressive border security.
Immigration is a particularly important issue for some Philadelphia Tea Partiers. Two different local Tea Party activists speaking onstage mentioned the death in August 2011 of Joe Vento, who owned Geno’s Steaks, a famous Philadelphia cheesesteak stand, and who was involved in Tea Party activism. Vento gained national notoriety in 2006 when he posted a sign in a Geno’s window that read, “This Is AMERICA: WHEN ORDERING Please SPEAK ENGLISH.” Local Tea Party groups sometimes met at Geno’s.
The only speaker besides Romney who received a standing ovation upon his entrance was Robert Mansfield, a tall, lean, charismatic African-American candidate for Congress in Pennsylvania’s third district. He wore sunglasses throughout his speech, even though it was indoors and at night.
Romney was greeted with genuine enthusiasm, but not on the order of what I witnessed for Sarah Palin at February’s Conservative Political Action Committee. Romney proved surprisingly adept at speaking the Tea Party’s language, frequently bringing the audience to their feet. He knows that the key to mobilizing Tea Party conservatives is to make them think more about their hatred of Obama than their lukewarm feelings for him. Consequently Romney’s speech was almost entirely negative. He attacked Obama’s policies and worldview but did almost nothing to lay out an alternative.
The closest Romney came to a positive message was his opening riff on the wonders of American entrepreneurship. (It appears not to have occurred to Romney that it would be a lot easier for people to quit their jobs and start the next Google if we had universal health insurance.) But even that is an excuse to take a swipe at Obama. Romney complains that Obama “doesn’t understand the power of what makes America special economically, and perhaps otherwise.” That’s an unsubtle way of tying his shtick about private enterprise and entrepreneurship into an implicit nod to the right’s widely noted tendency to complain that Obama is un-American. This sentiment might also explain why Romney received a standing ovation for his banal assertion that, “I believe we are one nation under God.” This only seems like a strong statement of principle if you believe, as many conservatives do, that Obama does not share this belief.