One of the big curiosities about the Republican presidential race has been the seeming absence of the Tea Party movement as a force wielding anywhere near the influence it did during the 2010 midterm elections that swept scores of Democrats out of Congress.
After all, is there no greater reflection of the Tea Party’s reduced clout than the victories of Mitt Romney in Iowa and New Hampshire? The so-called “Massachusetts moderate” has seemed unstoppable against the self-proclaimed true conservatives in the race.
Yet, Mr. Romney’s success so far may say less about the revenge of the moderates than it does about his own rebranding as a Tea Party candidate, deftly appropriating the language of the movement. As such, he is doing what it takes to win a GOP nomination in 2012.
When Mr. Romney’s father and then Michigan governor George Romney ran for the GOP nomination in 1968, he touted his record promoting civil rights, introducing a state income tax and courting organized labour. Today, he would be laughed out of the room.
The son has not dared defy the writing on the wall. Indeed, he has even supplied the pen.
“The common wisdom right now is that the Tea Party has not succeeded because it’s Romney who’s winning,” says Harvard University sociologist and Tea Party expert Theda Skocpol. “I really disagree with that. … Tea Partiers have slowly come around to accepting Romney because he has endorsed everything they are advocating.”
Indeed, Mr. Romney cleaned up among Tea Party sympathizers in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, winning 41 per cent of their vote, according to exit polls.
To be sure, Mr. Romney has also benefited from a divided opposition. Scores of Tea Party groups have splintered because of their inability to unite behind one candidate.
But Mr. Romney is outperforming his rivals among the very voters thought to be most hostile to him because he speaks to their concerns better than the other candidates.
Tea Partiers rail against big government. But they cling to their own benefits – mainly Social Security and Medicare – arguing they have already paid for them with their taxes. What gets their goat are purely redistributive programs aimed at those who pay few or no taxes.
As she waited for Mr. Romney to show up at a rally this week, Deia Nourse offered her rebuttal against accusations that the former buyout mogul once practised “vulture” capitalism, callously gutting struggling companies to pad his own bulging wallet.
“The other side of the coin is that people who work really hard are having their money going to people who don’t work at all,” the 59-year-old New Hampshirite asserted.
Consciously or not, Ms. Nourse was articulating a major gripe of Tea Party sympathizers. Mr. Romney, perhaps more than any other candidate, has understood the nature of their grievances.
He has defended Social Security against Republicans who seek to privatize it, while tapping into the very veins of indignation toward President Barack Obama that sparked the Tea Party’s birth, such as his plan to subsidize the purchase of health insurance by the poor.
“He wants to turn America into a European-style entitlement society,” Mr. Romney said on Tuesday, employing a term that, in Tea Partier eyes, implies unearned benefits.
Prof. Skocpol, co-author of The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, also detects Tea Party influence in Mr. Romney’s hard-line stand on illegal immigration.
Texas Governor Rick Perry, an early Tea Party favourite, lost the movement’s support by defending his state’s policy of subsidizing college tuition for young people brought to the United States illegally as children. Mr. Romney quickly moved to oppose any leniency.
The recent attacks against Mr. Romney’s past, running buyout firm Bain Capital, are aimed at white working-class voters. They have become the core of Republican support since so-called Reagan Democrats began switching sides in the 1980s.
Mr. Perry and ex-House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich, who face elimination in the Jan. 21 South Carolina primary, are appealing to working-class Republicans by portraying Mr. Romney as a greedy millionaire acting against their interests.
“They see South Carolina as a place where an economic populist message might have some chance,” Prof. Skocpol offers. “It’s a very conservative state with a lot of fairly downscale people who vote Republican.”
Still, such arguments are typically a hard sell with Republicans, rich or not.
A Pew Research Center survey released Thursday found that class has supplanted race as the biggest source of perceived conflict in American society. But Republicans are far more likely than Americans as a whole – 58 per cent to 43 per cent – to believe that the rich earned their wealth through “their own hard work, ambition or education.”
Even if the Gingrich-Perry attacks prove effective among some GOP voters, Mr. Romney may have come up with a rebuttal that works better with Tea Partiers.
“This country already has a leader who divides us with the bitter politics of envy,” he said Tuesday in repudiating his GOP rivals. “I stand ready to lead us down a different path, where we are lifted up by our desire to succeed, not dragged down by a resentment of success.”
South Carolina will be Mr. Romney’s biggest test yet. If he passes it, the Massachusetts moderate will have taken a step closer to becoming the first Tea Party president.