Why Mitt Romney is the perfect Tea Party candidate

Feb 06, 2012

Mitt Romney, who is often pegged as too moderate by Republicans, may be more conservative than you think. Chat with Theda Skocpol, author of "The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism," about why Romney is actually the perfect Tea Party candidate.

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Read: Mitt Romney, the stealth tea party candidate

Hello everyone, this is Theda Skocpol, and I am glad to be here to consider your ideas and questions.

I an earlier discussion, I asked whether Romney would eventually become the "anti-Romney", and I believe that is happening. I belive conservatives are looking for an alternative to Romney, and they are not finding it with any of Romney's challengers. I believe eventually many conservative voters will determine that Romney is conservative enough. I note that Romney won a majority of Tea Party members in a CNN poll in Nevada. Do you see Tea Party members generally moving their support towards Romney nationwide?

Yes, conservatives are gradually moving Romney's way, and that may accelerate. Tea Partiers and other GOP conservatives want above all to beat Obama. As Romney focuses more and more on challenging the president, that may help him with conservatives, as does the constant reiteration of hard-line right promises.

I find it interesting that you note that many of Tea Party members do not themselves follow the hard core litmus test that many conservatives have created. I used to note this during interviews with Tea Party members who talk about less government, but they don't want the programs that they use taken away from them. How large a voice do you see for people who support some social net protections, like Social Security, Veterans Administration hospitals, etc. yet who still want to see lower taxes and less spending in others areas?

A very interesting question. Most grassroots Tea Partiers believe Social Security, Medicare, and veterans' benefits are legitimate -- especially for older folks like themselves who have "paid their dues" as hardworking Americans.  But elite Tea Party-linked groups want to shrink and privatize these programs.  The compromise might be to do that only for younger people, leaving current older beneficiaries untouched.  Many grassroots Tea Partiers feel that younger people are shirking and trying to get more than they deserve, so they might support FUTURE cuts in Social Security and Medicare.  That is what I expect Romney to do if he is elected president.

Really? Really! You think you have the background and lack of bias needed to judge these people? Do you really think you can take a swing through a part of the culture with which you are only breezily familiar and come out with a ture view of what these citizens actually know and believe? Your book reads like a crude caricature. Do you actually believe you have the standing to judge a political group with which you obviously disagree so stridently?

All I can say is that Vanessa Williamson and I took much more time to sit down and talk with Tea Party people at the grassroots than others who have written about these people.  We got to know quite a few as individuals and stay in touch.  A number have told us they think we are fair in portraying them.   Our book is sparing about judgements.   It mainly describes what he heard and saw and learned from studying national surveys and media coverage.  We leave the judgements to readers.   Some on the left dislike the book because we do NOT condemn Tea Partiers!

Dr. Skocpol, In your opinion, is the orthodoxy of the tea-party fueled Republican party hurting the United States? I feel that we are moving away from our traditional form of government with give-and-take politics and overlapping ideologies and moving towards a more British Parliamentary system, where one party is essentially powerless (although due to the United States senate that is not entirely the case). In previous years there was enough overlap amongst moderate members that legislation wasn't quite so party line based but now with the entirety of the GOP to the right of the entirety of the Democratic party, this just doesn't seem possible. Will we see a reversion or is this the new way of American Politics?

Parties with clear messages do not worry me, because that can help voters figure out what they want to support. But it does worry me to see movements that try to force elected representatives to refuse give and take and compromise, because our democracy cannot work without compromises worked out by elected representatives who respect one another.

Your book is described as nuanced but do you even realize how your closely your conclusions match the pre ordained positions of the liberal left when it comes to the Tea party? How is what you have come up with any different than if a conservative Professor from the Heritage Foundation came up with a book describing a leftist group as being made up of sincere but foolish and misguided citizens being slyly manipulated by a hard core communist cadre funded by George Soros? Have you ever considered that where you end up might have a lot to do with where you start?

A fair question.   We found quite a few things we did not expect, and we liked many of the people we spoke withm and say as much in the book.   We have compared our conclusions and evidence with those of scholars who are very conservative in their personal political views, and we agree on the key findings.  That is how the scholarly community works.   As for conservatives studying a leftist movement, they would need to follow the same standards of gathering evidence and sharing it with other scholars.  Our book is not a political screed, and we restrict our evaluations to the conclusion. You may notice if you read the conclusion, that we say the citizen activism in the Tea Party is "wonderful" even as we raise questions about a lack of tolerance.   We say that Tea Partiers know the political process even better than liberals often do. Yet when we heard things that were just plain factually false, we say so. 

How can we rely on Mitt Romney when he appeared to be sincere when he took the opposite positions on abortion, gay rights, gun rights, taxes, and the role of government that he now claims to hold today? We can't.

You make the same point that many of the Tea Party people we talked with made to us -- that Romney is not authentic, that he cannot be trusted.   Even when Romney repeats his newfound conservative positions again and again, many doubt his sincerity.  All I can say as a political scientist is that candidates who say things IN PUBLIC in a presidential campaign usually try to carry through once in office.

How do you overcome the situation where the Tea Party members have cocooned themselves inside a protective bubble of "facts" given to them by Fox News and conservative radio? I feel that actual facts, like that Mitt Romney used to be pro-choice, support gun control, global warming realist, be against a constitutional amendment against gay marriage, supporter of the individual mandate (like many conservatives once), and perhaps worse of all, once ran against Ronald Reagan-esque politics, just don't penetrate the tea party mindset. Not that I'm saying any realization of these facts would make the tea party support President Obama, but they seem to have taken on a mindset that the only facts are what Fox News told them last, and that everything else is just a vicious liberal attack. How do you establish one set of facts?

Not all Tea Party voters are willing to accept Romney, and many of those who refuse to support him would cite the earlier positions you mention.  Rival GOP primary candidates point out a lot of these things about Romney!

You're right that the Tea Party's arguments about small government are really about protecting majority privilege. I think the disconnect between Romney and the Tea Party is less about about political agendas and more about that idea of tribal identity. Sure, some of the disconnect comes from Romney's Mormonism which is anathema to fundamentalists. And some of this is his relatively liberal record in Massachusetts. But the real problem is that Romney doesn't pander to this bloc's perception of itself as righteous victims.

I am not sure Romney refuses to pander.  Remember his recent comment about not caring about the very poor -- just real Americans?  That was an answer designed to appeal to Tea Partiers who think of themselves as hard-working Americans taxed to give benefits to "freeloaders."

Dear Professor Skocpol, Mr. Romney seems so fully like a man without a clearly defined belief system. Could we not say that, if he were to be the nominee in a year when the Republican party was trending towards the center, he would be the "perfect moderate candidate?" He seems to shift with the wind. At least that is my sense. Is there something that you see which makes him definitively more conservative in orientation than his Massachusetts governorship showed? Thanks!

You make a good point: Romnney goes with the political wind.  But remember, the winds in his own party, the Republican Party, blow hard to the right these days. And if Romney is elected, he will probably serve along with a Republican-led House and Senate in which there are many fiercely right-wing legislators.   He will also be worried about running in Republican primaries for reelection in 2016.  So that means Romney would sign the extreme right bills that Republicans in Congress would send to his desk.  I don't think he will have much room for manuever.

All his previous experience in government and public life indicates that he his far from being the hard right ideologue movement conservatives want in the White House. If Romney is elected, how can he keep these folks from turning on him when he inevitably governs from the center/right?

He will carry through many of the promises he has made to the right -- but fudge on some others.  A lot depends on whether he is pressed by very conservative leaders in the House and Senate -- and by grassroots activists on the right.  Remember, a lot of GOP officeholders now are worried about being challenged in primary elections, so they do as much as they need to do to keep activist conservative voters relatively happy and satisfy big money funders who might bankroll challengers.  Still, no president makes ideological activists entirely happy.    And Romney would have a good excuse not to carry through on promises -- such as getting rid of ObamaCare -- if Democrats control part of Congress.

Ms. Skocpol, A research study was released last week showing that people with a low IQ were likely to be both conservative and racist. In order to win Tea Party voters, will Mitt Romney have to dumb down his message to appeal to them? Have you read this research study and will it influence the election? Thank you for your time, Concerned in Arlington

I have not seen any such study and I am not sure I find what you report plausible.  The Tea Party people we met were well-educated and not dumb.  National surveys show that Tea Party supporters are slightly above average in education.   Educated is not the same thing as operating with factually accurate information, however.  Many believe things that are not factually accurate.

What steps would Romney have to take to be accepted by the Tea Party?

He has already taken a lot of them -- that was my point in the OpEd yesterday.  Romney promises to crack down on illegal immigrants and get rid of Obama's health reform -- these are key promises grassroots Tea Partiers want to hear.   And Romney also makes promises to the fat cat allies of the Tea Party who want lower taxes on the super-rich, removal of regulations on the financial sector and businesses, and privatization of Social Security and Medicare for the future.  Romney is making all the right promises to attract both grassroots and elite support in the Tea Party.

That's it for today, everyone. I enjoyed your comments and questions very much.

In This Chat
Theda Skocpol
Theda Skocpol is the Victor S. Thomas professor of government and sociology at Harvard University and a co-author of "The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism," reviewed on B8.
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