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.
Romney is especially scornful of the “Buffet rule,” which is Obama’s proposal to make fabulously wealthy investors such as Romney pay a tax rate closer to what everyone else in their income bracket pays. “Someone calculated the Buffet rule would pay for eleven hours of the federal government,” snorts Romney. Of course, just the night before Romney had called for eliminating the mortgage interest deduction for second homes, which would raise far less revenue than the Buffet rule.
The audience was receptive to Romney’s standard Republican talking points. Romney asserted that letting the Bush tax cuts expire on businesses that pay taxes as individuals making more than $250,000 would cause job losses. The fact that those taxes are on profits, or what is left over after paying your employees, was elided. So it’s not clear why paying 4 percent more in taxes on one’s profits would force anyone to lay off an employee. Romney offered no evidence when he asserted this cause and effect, nor did he make an effort to explain why unemployment was so low during Bill Clinton’s presidency when these tax rates were in effect. It wasn’t even clear what Romney was referring to when he said that our “criminally” low rates of high school graduation exist because “the federal government doesn’t understand the impact on free enterprise.” It sounded as if two different right-wing madlibs were accidentally smushed together and a bafflingly meaningless assertion came out.
Even Romney’s campaign promises are framed as attacks on Obama. His biggest applause line of the night came when he said, “It’s time to balance the budget.… I’ll look for programs not just to slow the rate of growth but to eliminate, and the first is Obamacare.” The Affordable Care Act will actually reduce the deficit, so Romney’s pivot from repealing programs to balance the budget to repealing the ACA is a total non sequitur.
I asked some of the people sitting next to me, who had stood to applaud, whether they were bothered by the fact that Romney himself had signed such a similar law in Massachusetts. The consensus seemed to be that was OK because it was only at the state level. Of course, back in 2009 Tea Party activists weren’t shouting at those town halls about federalism and how this policy should be implemented only at the state level. They were objecting to it because they said any such intervention in the private market for health insurance is socialist totalitarianism. But Romney is their nominee and, luckily for him, Republicans have also settled on the narrow claim that the individual mandate is unconstitutional at the federal level as their last ditch effort to make sure 45 million Americans remain without health insurance. “If you don’t like what they did in Massachusetts you can move, and a lot of people did,” explained Mike Peck, a computer administrator from Bristol Township, Pennsylvania. “So I don’t care if they do it at the state level. If they do it at the state level I can move. But if the do it nationally where can I go? Canada?” By Peck’s own logic, Romney was a terrible governor who signed a law so intrusive that it caused residents to flee his state. But Peck is perfectly comfortable supporting Romney in the general election.
Romney’s speech had the vibe of a negative pep rally. The audience booed on cue when Romney mentioned the National Labor Relations Board ruling that Boeing could not move a plant in retaliation for union activities. They burst into laughter at the mere mention of Vice President Joe Biden’s name.
Romney is pursuing the right strategy. As a former moderate, he will never make himself into the Tea Party’s hero. But he can motivate it to come out against Obama. “I don’t know if conservatives will rally around Romney, but they will rally against Democrats,” says one Republican strategist. “One out of two ain’t bad.”
“The most popular thing about him is he’s not Barack Obama,” agrees Adam Brandon, spokesman for FreedomWorks, a fiscally conservative advocacy organization that works frequently with Tea Party groups. But, Brandon notes, Tea Party activists in some key states such as Ohio and Indiana may be motivated by more conservative Senate candidates. Perhaps, Brandon speculates, Romney could benefit from a reverse coattails effect.
Other veterans of Republican presidential politics note that Romney has a long time to enthuse the Republican base between now and November. “All of this depends on his performance as a candidate,” says Patrick Ruffini, president of Engage, a digital advocacy firm, and a former digital strategist for President Bush’s re-election and the Republican National Committee. “It’s not a matter of people falling into line so much as his performing well against Obama.”
Low enthusiasm for Romney among Tea Party activists could actually have advantages for him. “Our disappointment with him is going to help him with his run to middle,” notes Brandon. “You can’t claim he’s a far-right candidate.” That’s true. Conversely, the Obama campaign’s constant assertions that Romney is in fact a staunch conservative could burnish his credentials among Tea Partiers.
But, as his speech Monday demonstrated, Romney has basically decided to run as a Tea Party Republican. “One of the ultimate victories of the Tea Party movement is everyone is talking our talk,” says Brandon.