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Romney’s Convention Aimed for Swing Voters, but Lost the Tea Party

TAMPA—Mitt Romney did what he had to do during this convention. He avoided scandals and untoward incidents, and he gave an acceptance speech that puts him in a good position to run against Barack Obama. There was a downside to the convention, however, that was not visible on television. It pitted Romney against the Republican party’s activist core. That conflict probably won’t cost him the election, but if he wins the election, it could bring him all kinds of grief.

In his speech, Romney hit the obvious notes: jobs (which he highlighted rather than debt and deficits), women, faith, family, and country. He confined the hot button rightwing issues (the sanctity of life and marriage) to a single sentence toward the end of his speech. And he deflected concerns about his religion by portraying it as a charitable venture. But the most important thing he did was to stake his claim for the presidency on his record as a business consultant. He attributed Obama’s failure to stem the recession to his lack of business experience; and he claimed that because of his experience he would succeed:

The President hasn’t disappointed you because he wanted to. The President has disappointed America because he hasn’t led America in the right direction. He took office without the basic qualification that most Americans have and one that was essential to his task. He had almost no experience working in a business. Jobs to him are about government. I learned the real lessons about how America works from experience.

That’s not necessarily the best strategy for a candidate. In economic downturns, voters often select the candidate who they believe cares about and will fight for them. That was Bill Clinton in 1992. But neither Obama nor Romney are capable of appearing to feel voters’ pain. All Romney can do is try to show that he is trying to care, which is what he did in his speech, although a reference or two to the victims of Hurricane Isaac certainly would have helped. Still, there is another way to winning over voters in bad economic times. 

Just as Obama won in 2008 largely because voters admired his intelligence and believed that he understood the economic crisis far better than John McCain did, Romney can win in 2012 if voters believe he is more capable than Obama of bringing down unemployment and getting the country moving again. And his business experience is his main asset in making that claim. If he were to minimize that experience in order to avoid attacks against the specifics of his record at Bain, he would deprive himself of his best selling point. And so Romney and his advisors were wise to play up rather than play down his record. 

Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan as his running mate could hurt him, especially if the Obama campaign can tie Romney to Ryan’s support for privatizing Social Security and turning Medicare into a voucher program, but like his putting forward his record at Bain, it may well turn out to be a risk that was worth taking. Ryan himself appears to have subordinated his views to Romney’s; Ryan didn’t even mention Medicare or Social Security in his speech. At the same time, Ryan’s sheer presence on the ticket helps Romney with the Republican base. And as the convention showed, Romney needs a lot of help with the party’s base.

Romney spent his campaign pandering to many of the worst ideas of Republican right, but the party’s core group, which include, but is not limited to the Tea Party followers, correctly senses that he is not one of them. Romney is a patrician American who, whatever his failings, does exhibit a noblesse oblige toward the less fortunate. The groups that now dominate the local and many of the state Republican parties grow out of a politics of resentment directed a people whom they believe are getting handouts they don’t deserve from government. They want to radically reduce government spending for that reason. And they are allied with people, some of whom are billionaires, who want to eliminate all sorts of government regulations and taxes. This larger movement is now capable of dominating Republican primaries, as was recently demonstrated in the Texas Senate primary.

In the lead-up to the convention, the Romney campaign dealt with these groups by giving them want they wanted on the platform. A Tea Party coalition got 11 of its 12 proposals into the platform. These included scrapping regulations and spending, auditing the Federal Reserve, and replacing the current income tax with a flat tax. But at the convention itself, Romney tried to keep these groups at bay. Outside of Ryan, who was carefully scripted, none of the House or Senate radical Republicans got to take the stage. And he consigned the activist groups to a tent city outside the convention perimeter that was extremely difficult to reach because of the plethora of barricades that battalions of police and national guard erected around the city. (Jason Hoyt, a Tea Party founder, quipped that the next convention should be held on the Mexican border so that it could keep out not only interested Americans but also illegal immigrants.) At the convention, the Romney forces also passed a rule that would allow the Republican National Committee to override state parties—a measure directed at the Tea Party activists.

The activists and radical politicians responded in kind. At state caucus meetings and at the meetings of conservative groups, you would have thought that Ryan and not Romney was running for president. On Wednesday morning of the convention, Grover Norquist held the breakfast meeting of activist groups that he regularly holds in Washington on Wednesdays. Leaders of groups and politicians get up and say what they are doing, and what they would like to have done. Of the forty or fifty leaders who spoke, I counted only two—a representative of Karl Rove’s Crossroads and of the National Rifle Association—who even mentioned Romney. Kansas Governor Sam Brownback went out of his way to praise Ryan, but didn’t mention Romney. By the convention’s end, as word of the rules fight got around, indifference to Romney had given way to hostility toward the “Republican establishment,” of which Romney is seen as the chief representative.

These groups will dutifully support him in November, but if he is elected, they will present him with an impossible choice between the more moderate policies he might prefer and extreme measures that are widely unpopular outside Republican circles and that could damage the economy. This kind of conflict occurred during George H.W. Bush’s presidency when Bush, in order to curb the deficits, broke his promise not to raise taxes. Bush did the right thing for the economy, but it cost him and his party the election. If Romney, who got off to a good start with his acceptance speech, does win in November, he could easily suffer the same fate as president as Bush 41. He could discover that his worst enemies are in his own party.