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.