The two Republican front runners for president, Herman Cain and Mitt Romney, spoke at the Defending the American Dream Summit at the Washington, DC, Convention Center on Friday afternoon. The event, which brought together thousands of conservative activists from all over the country, is sponsored by the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, a Tea Party–aligned fiscally conservative organization funded by right-wing billionaires the Koch brothers and Art Pope, among others.
Based on the reception of the crowd, it’s apparent that Herman Cain—despite revelations this week that multiple women accused him of sexual harassment when he was their boss at the National Restaurant Association—is still far more popular among this segment of the right-wing base. Indeed, judging from interviews, he may have emerged even stronger for it.
Romney entered to notably tepid applause, and often had to pause at key moments during his remarks to let the crowd know that they were supposed to clap. His only standing ovation came when he enumerated his first of three steps to balance the budget, which is repealing “Obamacare.” Romney joked that he should have led his whole speech with that, seemingly aware that he wasn’t generally setting the crowd on fire.
It is strange to say that you will balance the budget by repealing the Affordable Care Act, since the law would reduce our deficit. But Romney’s budget section was devoted entirely to giving this sort of red meat to the base. When enumerating agencies he would cut, he led with hilariously small expenditures that will do almost nothing to balance the budget but will touch the conservative erogenous zone. “I like Amtrak, but I’m not willing to borrow $1.6 billion a year to subsidize it,” said Romney to applause. “I like the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, but I refuse to borrow almost $1 billion a year from China to pay for them,” he continued, to noticeably less clapping. Now, why is that?Don’t conservatives want to cut funding for all those programs? Indeed, they do, but Romney erred in admitting that he likes what they do, which no true conservative would.
Romney went on with all the other ideological hobbyhorses—too much foreign aid, too much money for Planned Parenthood. The real savings he would achieve come from an awfully vague pledge to limit government workers’ salaries and benefits to the level of private sector workers. How this would work in practice—which private sector workers exactly are his benchmark—is the real question.
Given the extreme anti-government sentiment of the audience, Romney made some wise choices, such as bragging that he can balance budgets because he worked in business, and some less wise ones, like vowing to protect Social Security through benefit cuts, with no mention of privatization. But he also called for privatizing Medicare. Ultimately, the lack of enthusiasm for Romney—the applause when he arrived, left and hit a rhetorical high point was almost always polite rather than excited—was more visceral than intellectual.
So is the enormous enthusiasm for Cain. He entered and exited to rousing cheers—the video monitors even showed an elderly lady in a bright red dress dancing to celebrate his arrival in the front—and he received several standing ovations.
Curiously, and perhaps in recognition of his greatest policy liability, Cain started with foreign policy as his first of three priorities we must adopt. As all conservative speakers do, Cain invoked Ronald Reagan at every opportunity. His foreign policy he said, is an extension of Reagan’s “peace through strength” to “peace through strength with clarity.” The second plank of his platform is the economy and his bizarre 9-9-9 tax overhaul. It used to be that the third leg of the famous conservative stool, along with strong national defense and low taxes, was moral values. Not anymore. Cain’s third priority is our lack of domestic energy production.
Cain would surely say the fact that the event’s sponsors, Charles and David Koch, make their money in the energy industry is totally coincidental to his sudden focus on it. Cain, is certainly fond of the Kochs though. He dismissed an article in that day’s New York Times noting the ties between him and the Kochs by proudly declaring he is “the Koch Brothers’ brother by another mother.” The crowd loved it, and even the secretive David Koch stood up to wave.
The audience seemed to enjoy Cain’s most vacuous rhetorical flourishes, such as when he said to huge applause that in his administration “there will be no entitlement programs, only empowerment programs.” And, of course, “I am reminded of one our greatest presidents… Ronald Reagan.” Cain closed by promising to push America back up the hill that Reagan said we reside atop, and left to whoops and cheers.
Attendees I buttonholed later generally expressed satisfaction with Romney’s speech but greater enthusiasm for Cain’s. “What I’d like to see from Romney is more passion,” said Vicki, an AFP activist who asked that her last name and home state in the Midwest not be used. “[Romney] had some really good things to say,” she conceded, though she couldn’t think of any specifics. Cecil Kusler, a Republican activist in Oklahoma whose wife is an elected Republican County Clerk in the Wagner County, Oklahoma, said: "They were both good. I liked Herman Cain better.” Romney, says Kusler, “is political; Cain comes across as non-political.” This is an impression Cain deliberately stokes, bragging during his speech that he has never “held high office,” which is true only because he lost his 2004 Senate race. Perhaps losing helped him though. He could hardly claim to be a non-politician if he spent six whole years in Washington. Kusler plans on voting for Cain in the primaries, but he will support Romney if Romney is the Republican nominee. That’s a common situation. Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform told me that Romney could win over fiscal conservatives, but he hasn’t yet, "but if he’s the nominee, he does it by default."
The one Romney supporter I talked to, Lois Snowe-Mello, is a state senator in Maine. (US Senator Olympia Snowe is married to her cousin). Snowe-Mello has endorsed Romney, although she likes Cain and his tax plan, because she isn’t sure Cain has the ability to govern and work with Democrats that Romney demonstrated in Massachusetts. Being a Northeastern Republican, she says she understands Romney’s challenges in Massachusetts and doesn’t judge him for his apostasies as harshly as other conservatives. “Cain is right now what Obama was to Democrats and independents in 2008,” she says. “He’s a guy with enthusiasm, who speaks well and is passionate, and [Republicans] aren’t looking past that.” Snowe-Mello readily concedes that the “ultraconservatives” found at the event may not be persuadable to come over to Romney’s camp.
Most attendees said the charges against Cain either had no effect on their opinion of him or actually strengthened it. “It’s a cheap shot,” says Snowe-Mello, “people are tired of political correctness.” Snowe-Mello believes the whole concept of sexual harassment to be a form of political correctness, as do some other attendees. One man told me that "every healthy American male has been accused of sexual harassment." Vicki meanwhile said the charges give her “a higher opinion of Cain, if that’s all that could be dug up. It follows a pattern of when an individual gets to a certain point in the polls, they get attacked.” In other words, Cain is the conservative martyr of the moment. But there were some notes of caution for Cain. One attendee said he’s not concerned by the allegations against Cain, “unless there’s something I don’t know.” Since the allegations seem to grow worse by the day, there very well may be.