At one level it was obvious that the first full day of the Republican Convention was Tea Party Day in Tampa. It was the day the Republican Party adopted a platform that--well, here's how the headline from Tuesday’s Freedom Works website puts it: "Republican Party Adopts Majority of Tea Party’s 'Freedom Platform.'"
And when they say "majority" they really mean it: by their calculation, "95 percent of the Freedom Platform" made it into the Republican document.
Let's be clear on what Freedom Works is. This is former U.S. House Majority Leader Dick Armey's national organization of "free-market" absolutists that, in its own words, "recruits, educates, trains and mobilizes millions of volunteer activists to fight for less government, lower taxes, and more freedom." It has been a key player in the formation, nurturance and direction of the Tea Party movement.
The Tea Party can be understood as embracing both a free-market absolutist and a social conservative camp. The Romney campaign's adoption of the Freedom Works agenda represents a virtual (or at least 95%) capitulation to the Tea Party’s free-market tax, budgetary and regulatory orthodoxy. This capitulation had already been signaled by Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan as his running mate. What's more, the Romney campaign's adoption of the Freedom Works agenda confounds the widely held expectation that once the Republican primaries were over, and the candidate no longer needed address the party's far right, he would move toward the center. As Romney's close advisor, Eric Fehrnstrom, famously put it back in March, after the primaries “everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.”
Tuesday, the Tea Party trumped Etch a Sketch mainstream Republicanism and the Romney campaign will run on an almost pure Tea Party economic platform.
And yet, politically, this does not seem enough to win. As the New York Times reported on Saturday, the Romney campaign has concluded that Romney’s one-note economic message will not get him elected president. The Times cited “a conclusion among Mr. Romney’s advisers that disappointment with Mr. Obama’s economic stewardship is not sufficient to propel Mr. Romney to victory on its [sic] own.”
And how to expand Romney’s appeal? According to the Times, his strategists have decided to infuse the campaign "with a sharper edge and overtones of class and race.” The point here seems to be, as with the Ryan selection, to further energize the party’s base to get those unenthusiastic with Romney to the polls in November and even to work for his election.
Already this was clear in the run-up to the convention. The campaign began charging the Obama campaign with resurrecting welfare as a no-work-requirement free ride. There is clear appeal in this to the Tea Partiers, for whom the division between “payers” and “takers,” the “deserving” and the “undeserving,” is fundamental to their worldview.
The welfare gambit had golden-oldie “welfare-queen” resonance with the Republicans’ successful Southern Strategy of last century. To this they have added the thoroughly up-to-date leitmotif of birtherism. Romney’s ‘just-a-joke’ comment last Friday in Michigan—“No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate”—played to a Republican Party in which a plurality doubts Barack Obama was born in the USA.
In the Tea Party, the doubts about Obama are even more intense. Tea Partiers view themselves as, in Sarah Palin’s phrase, “the real Americans.” Nothing elicits reactions more primal from them than the idea that Obama is, literally, not a real American. That the Obama presidency lacks legitimacy is the constitutional sophistry that follows from this. Even more, it gives rise to a feeling that since January 2009 the real Americans have been living under something akin to a foreign occupation of their country.
This profound sense of “us versus them” is absolutely fundamental to the coherence of the Tea Party Movement. Appealing to this sentiment was the second, and more subtle, level at which the Tea Party cast its shadow over Tuesday’s doings at the Republican Convention.
The “we” in the evening’s theme, “We Built It,” was the Tea Party “we.” And it was everywhere. On bunting throughout the arena, on huge TV screens and on placards held aloft by great numbers of delegates. “We Built It” encapsulated both the Tea Partiers’ idealized view of themselves and their demonized view of Obama and the Democrats: deserving versus undeserving; opportunity society versus entitlement society; self-reliance versus dependency; freedom versus big brother.
The gulf between “us” and “them” was perhaps most acutely suggested by one speaker, Sher Valenzuela, who has an upholstery business and is running for Lieutenant Governor of Delaware. For now, let’s ignore reports that Valenzuela in fact received government loans and contracts in building her business. This ability to hold what seem from the outside to be contradictions is not uncommon in a movement whose activists can assert “Government hands off my Medicare.”
Look instead at how extreme was the story Valenzuela told about herself. She and her husband had an autistic child. They faced a mountain of costs to give the child the remedial help he needed. This was the motivation to start their business. The moral? The solution to catastrophic medical challenge is individual and entrepreneurial. It is not a system of social insurance.
While Republicans in Tampa cheered this thought unreservedly, one has to wonder how wide might be its appeal. Outside the Republican fold, it might make as much sense as “Government hands off my Medicare.”