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What's for the tea party not to like in Romney?

Op-Ed

It turns out that Mitt Romney is the perfect Republican candidate for a tea party.

January 08, 2012|By Thomas Frank
  • Republican presidential nominee and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney greets a supporter after arriving at the Peanut Warehouse in Conway, S.C.
Republican presidential nominee and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney… (Richard Ellis / Getty Images )

Dear Tea Party Movement,

For the last few months, the world has been fascinated by your frenzied search for a presidential candidate who is not Mitt Romney. Because you found the man inauthentic, you buoyed up a string of anti-Mitts — Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich. But they were buffoons all, preposterous figures whom you rightfully changed your minds about as soon as you got to know them.

It was quite a spectacle, your quest for the non-Romney, and we all know why you undertook it. In ways that matter, Romney is clearly a problem for you. His views on abortion, for example, change with the winds. Ditto, gay rights. He designed the Massachusetts health insurance system that was the model for "Obamacare." And he's even said that he approved of the TARP bank bailout, the abomination that helped ignite the tea party uprising in the first place.

Still, my advice to you idealists of the right is this: Get over it. Not for sellout reasons, like Romney has the best chance of beating President Obama. No. You should get behind him because, in a certain paradoxical way, he may turn out to be the truest to the spirit of your movement of all the candidates.

If nothing else, you in the tea party movement have spent the last three years teaching Americans that we are in a battle for the very soul of capitalism. And here comes Romney, the soul of American capitalism in the flesh. Look back over his career as a predator drone at Bain Capital: Isn't it the exact sort of background you always insist politicians ought to have as you wave your copy of "Atlas Shrugged" in the air?

It's true that Romney said that the bank bailouts of 2008-09 were necessary, while you regard them as a mortal sin against free-market principles. But you shouldn't hold this against him. Any study of bank history reveals that free-marketeers have no problem doling out, or grabbing for, government money when the chips are down.

After all, President Herbert Hoover himself distributed bank bailouts in the early years of the Depression. Calvin Coolidge's vice president, Charles Dawes, helped out in Hoover's bailout operation, later changing hats and grabbing a big slice of the bailout pie for his own bank. Ronald Reagan's administration rescued Continental Illinois from what was then the largest bank failure in our history.

The reason they did these things should be as obvious as it is simple: "free market" has always been a high-minded way of saying "gimme," and when the heat rises, the "market" is invariably replaced by more direct methods, like demanding bailouts from the government you hate. Banks get bailouts for the simple reason that they want bailouts and have the power to insist on them — the same circumstances that got them deregulated in wave after wave in the 1980s, '90s and '00s.

In this sense, Romney, who is loud and proud when it comes to the need for further deregulation, has actually been more consistent than you. He's the gimme candidate of 2012, so he should really be your guy.

You say Romney is an unprincipled faker. Fair enough — he is. He's so plastic he's almost animatronic. But aren't you the ones who fall for it every time Fox News wheels out some Washington hack to confuse this or that corporate issue with the sacred cause of freedom? Aren't you the ones who thought that Glenn Beck's tears were markers of emotional sincerity?

I know, I know: For almost three years now you've dazzled the world with your proclamations that we're being dragged into "tyranny," that the country is being "destroyed," that America needs to be "saved" — and now here comes Mitt, with his fondness for workaday compromise, ruining your carefully contrived atmosphere of panic.

But give the man credit: He has tried. He's no stranger to the core tea party myth of the noble businessman persecuted by big government. Indeed, at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2009, he opened his talk this way: "I gotta get through this speech before federal officials come here and arrest me for practicing capitalism."

With Romney, a centimillionaire venture capitalist, carrying your banner in 2012, you will finally get to submit your capsized vision of social class to the verdict of the people — the actual flesh-and-blood people, that is, not the corporate "people" who make up the S&P 500.

You will get to explain your peculiar conviction that the way to react to a gigantic slump brought on by frenzied finance is to further unshackle Wall Street. You will get to line up behind a heroic businessman, like those rugged, resourceful fellows in the Ayn Rand novels you love. You will get to go into battle for the job creators, which is what all capitalists are, right? (OK, maybe not the guys at Bain Capital, the particular outfit where Romney made his pile, but the theory is all that really matters, isn't it?)

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