WASHINGTON – “Many tea party folks are going to find me, I believe, to be the ideal candidate,” the Republican presidential contender said in a news conference in December. “I sure hope so.”
These words were uttered not by Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul or Rick Perry — but by Mitt Romney. Yes, the same Romney who has been pegged as too moderate to attract tea party voters and hard-core conservatives.
Romney’s decisive victory last week in the Florida primary has increased his chances of locking up the GOP nomination for president. If he does, we will read countless media obituaries for the tea party, explaining how the movement that won so much in 2010 fell short in 2012 and is left saddled with an elite, middle-of-the-road candidate it doesn’t want.
But Romney — Swiss bank accounts, establishment support and all — has maneuvered with ruthless precision and impeccable timing to position himself as a champion of the tea party agenda. During the primary campaign, he’s repeatedly pledged fealty to key tea party priorities: cracking down on illegal immigration, repealing “ObamaCare,” slashing taxes and drastically scaling back government spending. It’s working: Half of the primary voters in Florida who say they support the tea party went for Romney.
Romney has become the stealth tea party candidate, endorsing the essence of the movement while remaining unburdened by its public label. This makes him the ideal tea party candidate for the general-election battle against President Barack Obama.
While researching our new book, “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism,” Vanessa Williamson and I attended local tea party meetings in the Southwest, mid-Atlantic and New England, and interviewed grass-roots tea party activists. We learned more about their views than national surveys alone convey.
Initially, we assumed that government spending is the chief irritant for the tea party, but we soon realized that anger about illegal immigrants rivals that concern. With many older men and women (including retirees) making up the movement, its members do not usually point to immigration as a threat against U.S. workers; rather, they are upset at the thought of undocumented children overburdening public schools or illegal immigrants crowding emergency rooms.
After all, tea partyers see themselves as hard-working Americans whose taxes should not fund benefits for “freeloaders.” Along with illegal immigrants, low-income Americans and young people loom large as illegitimate consumers of public benefits and services. In tea party thinking, they are all asking for more than they have earned.
Last fall, when Perry seemed to emerge as a credible conservative alternative for the GOP nomination, Romney eviscerated him on immigration. In a September debate, the Texas governor admonished his GOP rivals, saying “I don’t think you have a heart” for opposing college tuition subsidies for some undocumented young people who were brought to the United States as children. More than his famous verbal flubs, that moment sealed Perry’s rejection by tea party voters. Romney pounced, declaring himself unalterably opposed to the Dream Act and any other benefits “rewarding” illegal immigrants.
“We have to have a fence,” Romney continued. “We have to crack down on employers that hire people that are here illegally. And we have to turn off the magnet of extraordinary government benefits.”
In subsequent debates, Romney has made clear that he would veto the Dream Act, and he has repeated his opposition to any amnesty for the 11 million undocumented people in the United States. According to Romney, they should all “self-deport” after their livelihoods are cut off by tough enforcement. They should “return home” and “wait in line” to apply to come back. Tea party voters are thrilled by these hard-line positions.
Obama’s health-care reform law also fits into tea party views on immigration. Much of the group’s indictment of the president rests on the fantasy that he wants to give free health care — not to mention a blanket amnesty and citizenship privileges — to undocumented immigrants, thus securing millions more votes for himself and the Democratic Party.
No surprise, then, that Romney has constantly declared his determination to get rid of ObamaCare the minute he moves into the White House. Of course, Romney’s health-care overhaul in Massachusetts, which he continues to defend, is essentially the same thing as Obama’s Affordable Care Act does: Both feature rules to curb private insurance abuses, state “exchanges” for people to buy private health plans and subsidies for Americans who cannot afford insurance. No matter; Romney just loudly promises to get rid of ObamaCare and assumes, probably correctly, that many in the tea party accept his pledge.
Gingrich has been harder for Romney to bat away than other contenders for the conservative mantle. Many older, grass-roots tea party enthusiasts fondly remember him from his glory days in the 1990s, when he pushed out moderate GOP congressional leaders and wrested the House of Representatives from Democratic control.
But the former House speaker is weighed down by personal baggage, including his associations with mortgage giant Freddie Mac. Conservatives hate “government bailouts,” but in our interviews we rarely heard tea partyers condemn Wall Street capitalists for receiving them. Instead, they contend that corrupt government officials and policies to help minorities buy homes were responsible for the financial meltdown of 2008 and 2009. Many tea partyers think the poor are coddled by government and nod their heads in agreement when Romney says he is “not concerned about the very poor.”
Gingrich also has been vulnerable to attack ads because so many GOP elites dislike him personally and have raised doubts with primary voters. Indeed, the tea party is about more than bottom-up activism. Long-standing far-right advocacy and lobbying groups, such as Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks, have been part of the movement from its earliest days. Such operations are funded by corporations and ultra-conservative billionaires. Their priority is to help elect conservative Republicans who will block taxes on the wealthy and unburden the federal government from expensive social spending.
A year or so ago, many such top-down tea party forces were skeptical about Romney — a skepticism reflected in the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal and in checks sent by the Koch brothers to rival GOP contenders such as Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota. But with elite conservative heartthrobs such as Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie staying out of the fray, possibilities at the top opened for Romney, particularly as he pledged fidelity to far-right tax and budget priorities.
When Gingrich surged in GOP primary polls, Romney endorsed Ryan’s budget plan, which promises to continue the Bush tax cuts for the very wealthy, add new tax breaks for corporations and wealthy estate owners, and slash public spending on Medicaid, Medicare, welfare and college tuition assistance. In fact, Romney has gone well beyond Ryan’s proposals, issuing campaign documents that promise to slash non-defense spending to 20 percent of gross domestic product, or even as low as 16 percent. This would pull the federal government out of much of what it does to promote education and health, and to care for an aging population. No wonder the Club for Growth, Americans for Prosperity and other ultra-right elite groups are falling in line behind Romney.
The tea party has never been a unified organization, so it was never really in the cards that there would be a single “tea party candidate” for president. But by now, after months of wooing by Romney, many tea partyers are quite happy with the explicit promises he has made.
Of course, if he ends up in the general-election race, Romney’s campaign will rarely mention the tea party. While throwing occasional red meat to the conservative faithful, he will generally repackage himself as a centrist who knows how to grow the economy and create jobs. Some voters and commentators may even conclude that the “true Romney,” the moderate Romney, is re-emerging and that he simply pandered to the right during the primaries.
Don’t count on it. Research shows that presidents strive to carry out the promises they make during campaigns. If Romney defeats Obama, he could take office backed by a Republican-led House and Senate, which would quickly send radical-right bills to his desk. A President Romney would sign them all — the Ryan budget eviscerating Medicare and Medicaid, a permanent extension of the Bush tax cuts, harsh immigration crackdowns, the gutting of ObamaCare. Whatever his deep-down beliefs, he would be determined to overcome any lingering conservative skepticism.
In Romney, the tea party has found the ultimate prize: a candidate loyal to the movement’s agenda, but able to fool enough pundits and moderate voters to win the White House at a time when the tea party has lost broad appeal. Pushing the Republican Party to the hard right and denying Obama a second term have always been top tea party goals. In Romney, the movement has just the man it needs.
Theda Skocpol is the Victor S. Thomas professor of government and sociology at Harvard University and coauthor of “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism.”