Despite all the fuss that preceded Mitt Romney’s appearance at a Tea Party Express gathering yesterday in New Hampshire, the candidate’s sparsely attended speech went off without incident as well as without much evidence he is making any headway with supporters of the populist movement. If anything, the lackluster show seemed to indicate most voters on the right think Romney is so out of touch with their concerns it isn’t even worth bothering to protest him.
The Freedom Works group split off from Tea Party Express over the invitation, but according to published accounts, there was no outpouring of anger at Romney, who appears to have given his standard stump speech. Rick Perry’s large lead in the polls is due to strong backing from Tea Partiers. If Romney hopes to beat him, he’s going to have to find a way to convince conservatives he’s really one of them, so the appearance was a good idea. But Romney’s record on the key issue of health care renders any effort on his part to garner support from these activists a fool’s errand.
Accounts of the event in both Politico and the New York Times attempted to portray the gap between Romney supporters and his critics as being as much a function of the cultural divide between country club Republicans and Tea Party populists. But the candidate’s record as a sponsor of a government-mandated health care plan has always doomed his chances to win the backing of many GOP activists. While the precipitous decline in the economy in the last few months has put Obamacare on the back burner to some extent, opposition to that measure is still the one issue that unites almost all Republicans.
Romney’s a better candidate than he was four years ago, and his business resume may seem designed to win the presidency during a double-dip recession. Tht Republicans’ top priority of beating Barack Obama ought to give a big advantage to a candidate like Romney who is better able to appeal to independents and centrists.
It is also true the Tea Party isn’t the force it was in 2010. Yet this movement represents something bigger than the stray activists who show up at events like the one in New Hampshire this past weekend. A distrust of government as well as resentment of taxes and deficits runs deep in the GOP. Even many who would never personally identify with the Tea Party have such sentiments. So long as Romney remains identified with the passage of a measure that resembles Obamacare, he will remain anathema to many GOP voters. That is his dilemma, and anyone who thinks the GOP will nominate someone solely on the basis of polls that give Romney a slightly better chance to beat Obama than Perry hasn’t been paying attention to the changing political landscape of the party. Unless and until Romney figures out how to change that basic fact, he’s going to find the rest of the campaign an uphill slog.