Romney’s decisive victory Tuesday 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 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.