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Romney Sips Some Tea

The candidate woos the grassroots in Michigan.

Mar 5, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 24 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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At the closing ceremony, in the company of Vice President Dick Cheney, Romney asked Derek Parra, a speedskater who won gold and silver medals at the winter games in Salt Lake City, about his greatest memory from the Olympics. Rather than citing his medals, the young athlete recalled the opening ceremony, when he was asked to carry the flag that had flown over the World Trade Center on 9/11. Parra had expected the crowd to cheer loudly when the flag and its provenance were announced, but instead it fell silent. “Complete reverence,” Romney explained to a hushed crowd. It’s a terrific story, and Romney told it well.

“We are a patriotic people,” he insisted. “We love America!” Romney contrasted his desire to “restore” the America of the Founders with President Obama’s eagerness to transform America. He twice declared, “I believe in America,” and added, for good measure: “I love America.”

The crowd had been moved by the story of Derek Parra. But Romney’s patriotism pile-on was a bit like one too many packets of Sweet’N Low in your coffee. It made a moving story about the patriotism of an athlete feel like a story told to advance a political campaign. Several reporters who travel with Romney agreed that the patriotism section of his speech was longer and delivered with more passion for these Tea Party patriots than for other Republican groups. The irony: No one who knows Romney well doubts that he is moved by those stories every time he tells them.

If Romney sought to identify with these conservatives by speaking to their values, he did not pander on policy. He stayed after his speech and took several questions. His host promised they “wouldn’t be too bad,” and they weren’t. The most aggressive was this one: “There’s no greater immediate threat facing our country than the rapidly increasing federal debt. We now have an antiquated tax code that needs to be scrapped. Just tinkering around the edges of this monster will not save our country. How will you rewrite the tax code to a flatter, fairer tax that encourages production and keeps capital in this country?” Romney proceeded to politely describe his tax plan​—​which most certainly does not scrap the tax code and, while far preferable to anything coming from the White House, might accurately be described as tinkering.

That, at least, was the impression of Linda Williams, who owns the Heavenly Acres pet cemetery and crematorium. “It was weak,” she said. “He’s got to stop talking like a politician. He’s got to be stronger.” She left a supporter of Rick Santorum.

So did Phil Stargell, a local activist and radio host. “Tea Party people​—​there are a lot of entrepreneurs and small business owners,” he said, looking out from under the brim of a baseball cap that read “Jesus Inside,” in a logo resembling that of computers with “Intel Inside.” “You have to try to work with them and get them to the point where they can bring this country back because they’re the ones that’s going to bring this country back. That’s what I like about the Fair Tax and even Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan. You have to get rid of the income tax.”

And that could be part of the problem: Policies that many in the Tea Party regard as too cautious, the Romney campaign sees as bold. Last week, the campaign used that word​—​“bold”​—​to describe its tax plan in at least 22 separate press releases to reporters.

But others in the crowd were more positive. “He did better than I expected,” said Carolyn Kirin, a local GOP precinct leader but not a member of any Tea Party groups. She left a Romney voter.

Maribeth Schmidt is a leader of the “Rattle with Us” Tea Party. Motto: “Our Venom Is Our Vote.” A week earlier, she spent time with Romney as the only undecided voter on a panel of Michigan Republicans. Her group will not endorse, but she said she had heard enough from Romney to make her a supporter. “He didn’t evade anything. We have to have somebody who is going to fight. I saw more of that tonight.”

Electing conservatives to Congress, Schmidt says, will help. “I don’t think he’d turn down a flat tax if the legislature brought one to his desk. If we surround him with conservatives, he could be a very good president. I don’t feel at all uncomfortable with the thought of him as our president.”

Is that something less than an enthusiastic endorsement? No, she says: “I’m an enthusiastic supporter of Mitt Romney.”

Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.

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