What Should Mitt Do about Sarah?
Boyer, Peter J., Newsweek
Byline: Peter J. Boyer
Romney hasn't invited Palin to the GOP convention, and the Tea Party is livid. Mitt's troubled relations with the grassroots.
On the day that Mitt Romney formally announced his run for the presidency last year, he found himself competing with a stiff New Hampshire wind, which stood his hair on end and played havoc with his microphones. What blew in later was even more distracting: the red, white, and blue bus bearing Sarah Palin on her "One Nation" tour. Palin stole the headlines, and Romney's buzz, that day ("Coincidence," she said), and beyond. Through much of the summer, she hovered at the edge of the Republican primary campaign as a shadow candidate, once predicting that she could not only beat Romney, but President Obama, too, before finally declaring herself out of the race last fall.
But Palin continued to vex Romney's candidacy, questioning his conservatism, encouraging the non-Romneys still in the race, and publicly cheering for the prospect of an open convention. Even after Romney clinched the race in late spring, Palin remained pointedly hesitant about the presumed Republican nominee. She has not yet extended to Romney her full endorsement, and, while she speaks animatedly of the urgency of defeating President Obama in November, her support for Romney derives from the fact that Romney meets Palin's threshold qualification--as "anybody but Obama."
In that regard, Palin reflects the abiding unease that many conservatives, especially the grassroots activists associated with the Tea Party movement, still feel about Romney. A poll published by The Washington Post last week showed Romney dead even with the president, but it also revealed that Obama holds a startling enthusiasm advantage over Romney. More than half of Obama's backers, 51 percent, said they'll vote for him "very enthusiastically," compared with just 38 percent of Romney's supporters expressing similar eagerness. Republican energy and enthusiasm resides within the Tea Party, which delivered the House of Representatives to the GOP in 2010, and this year defeated six-term Republican Sen. Richard Lugar in a primary and helped save Gov. Scott Walker's job in Wisconsin. Romney has failed, so far, to connect with that energy. "Quite honestly, we have been focused on the Senate races, rather than the presidential race," says Amy Kremer, chair of the Tea Party Express, "and that is what I've seen from everybody across the country."
What galls the Tea Party activists is the sense that Romney represents a lost opportunity for their agenda of less government, flatter taxes, and constitutional restraint. Facing a vulnerable president saddled with a bad economy and a crisis in the public sector, they feel stuck with a guy served up by Republican elites who speaks conservatism with an establishment accent. Worse, in this view, Romney seems incapable, or unwilling, to even defend himself, as the Obama campaign machine highlights his offshore bank accounts and his career at Bain Capital.
"Romney's just not a fighter," says Jenny Beth Martin, head of the Tea Party Patriots, the largest of the activist groups. "That's why it would be good for him to have someone like Palin speaking at the convention. He needs to do something to rile up his base, to make them enthusiastic. And I don't mean just the Tea Party. I mean die-hard Republicans. I live in the second-most-Republican county in the state of Georgia, and the folks around here are not enthusiastic about him."
Palin would certainly light up the base at the convention--her 2008 vice-presidential acceptance speech was, in terms of partisan enthusiasm, the high-water mark of the McCain campaign--but a jolt of Palin at Romney's convention seems most unlikely. The Romney campaign prides itself on a slavish adherence to script, and Palin cannot be trusted to avoid the impulse to go rogue. That is why, perhaps, the Romney campaign has not asked Palin to speak at the convention nor contacted her about even attending the party's marquee event in Tampa. …