Revival In Warwick

Mitt Romney and the missing middle ground

by by David Adler

illustration by by Allison Clark

Everyone packed into the lobby of Warwick’s Crowne Plaza Hotel last Wednesday knew that Rhode Island is a blue state. Their attendance at Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s Town Hall Meeting was a protest; regardless of mixed feelings toward Romney himself, Rhode Island Republicans were taking a stand against the Democratic dominance of the Ocean State. Unfortunately for them, just as Rhode Island begins to flex its Republican muscle, Mitt Romney is scurrying toward the center. The 500 attendees that managed to squeeze into the Town Hall auditorium expected all the rhetorical pyrotechnics of the Republican primaries—slamming of immigration, denouncing of welfare recipients, affirmation of the primacy of the Christian faith. Instead, with Santorum out of the race, Romney’s Town Hall Meeting was nothing more than a rehearsal of his return to moderate Republicanism.

Standing in line to enter Romney’s Town Hall Meeting, Peter Buonfigilio surveyed the hotel lobby. “I’m very surprised by this crowd,” he admitted, accepting a Romney sticker from an event coordinator. The line to get inside the auditorium was now so long that it snaked around the hotel lobby and out the front door. According to Buonfigilio, a schoolteacher from Cranston, this crowd dwarfed Republican gatherings of the past—far fewer people had showed up to see McCain back in 2008; even further back, Rhode Island’s red was virtually nonexistent.

Bill Pennoyer, a retired salesman from North Kingstown, echoes this sentiment. He’s been involved with the Rhode Island Republican Party since the 1970s, helping to organize Ronald Reagan campaigns in both ’76 and ’80. Back then, Pennoyer was one of only about 25,000 Republican voters in the state. In 1976, he explains, Reagan couldn’t capture a single delegate from Rhode Island. And even the small pool of existing Republicans was pretty close to the center. According to Pennoyer, “there was no conservative interest among the Republican party.” John Chafee, for example, one of only four Republican Rhode Island governors in past 50 years, was himself a liberal. From his pro-choice position on abortion, to his opposition to the death penalty, to his support of homosexuals in the army, to his advocacy for a stronger US health care system, Chafee’s true colors bled blue.

In the last four years, however, Rhode Island—like much of the nation—has experienced a major right wing push. As the state continued to spiral downward in the wake of the Financial Crisis of 2008, many Rhode Islanders turned toward the far right, which promised financial respite with a platform that would cut taxes, balance a state budget, and push out immigrants taking local jobs. Grassroots organizations like the Rhode Island Tea Party sprouted up in 2009 with the movement’s nationwide rise, staging large-scale demonstrations outside the State House to fight against tax hikes.Travis Rowley B’02, Chairman of the Rhode Island Young Republicans, recently wrote in his column in GoLocalProv, “Hope remains in Rhode Island…This is Rhode Island’s Republican Revolution.”

Most of the attendees are not new to the Republican Party—many trace their political inspiration back to Reagan and others became involved during the 2000 Bush election—but the record attendance at the Romney event suggests a new wave of right-wing enthusiasm. In fact, most attendees are far to the right of Romney and put off by his softy Republicanism. Their presence is the mark of a commitment to the Republican Party—not Romney himself.

Buonfigilio, the Cranston schoolteacher, was very vocal about his dislike of Romney. “None of the field enthused me at all,” he admits. “On the social issues, I don’t trust him…I object to the lack of consistency in the message.” Pennoyer, the retired salesman, isn’t exactly a fan either. “I just wish he would liven up a little.”

Karen Siegemund has “been a Newt supporter since day one.” A professor of Mathematics at University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth and an unapologetic critic of Romney’s moderation, she was “just here to vet the candidates.” But she stands behind the Republican Party—if Romney’s the man, so be it.

Nonetheless, insofar as this radical brand of Republicanism has sprung from America’s failing economy, Romney has his Rhode Island appeal. With the city of Providence moving toward bankruptcy, many Rhode Islanders are attracted to what John, a local businessman, called Romney’s “financial vision.” “He’s got a job, he knows the economy, he’s all about prosperity,” John argued. After all, said John, “he is going to get me out of my underwater mortgage.”

The Meeting was an argument on repeat. From the formal event title (“Small Business Town Hall”) to the Romney banners (“More Jobs. Less Debt. Smaller Government.”), Romney’s pitch to Rhode Island was purely economic, and attendees were eager to point to his fiscal success. As businesswoman Leslie Gerrig put it, “he’s made more jobs than the government.”

This mix of moderate-to-radical Republicanism produced a particularly right-wing intensity at the Town Hall. Radical Republicans hoped to see Romney solidify a platform that has played to the interests of the Tea Party throughout the primaries; moderate Republicans hoped to prove to the radicals that Romney was not the softball Republican many have claimed him to be.

More than anything, people at the Town Hall were excited to be surrounded by other Republicans. Rhode Island—the smallest and one of the bluest states in the union—does not get much political play from the GOP. Unlike the swing states of the Midwest, Rhode Island has never been a battleground for which Republican candidates campaign and rally. As a result, Rhode Island Republicans have been rehearsing their platform in more of an echo chamber than a parliamentarian one. Town Hall attendees were ready to blow to show Romney that Rhode Island Republicans have arrived.

As Kid Rock’s “I Was Born Free” blasted through the auditorium speakers, the crowd rose to greet Romney with an eager standing ovation. Romney, blushing at the enthusiasm, tried to calm his audience. “Thank you, thank you,” he said, motioning for the audience to sit down. But the standing ovation lingered awkwardly, overextended, as if trying to prove something about Rhode Island Republicanism. Romney responded with gratitude: “This is an absolutely extraordinary welcome from the people of Rhode Island, and I appreciate it.”

In many ways, Romney’s Town Hall speech played the Tea Party tune. Throughout the evening, Romney emphasized cutting back on social services, reducing taxes, and putting more control over federal programs back in the hands of states—policies he has stuck by throughout the primary.

Romney was also eager to show off his American muscle. He decried Obama’s attempt to cut back on military spending, promising to reclaim the seas by increasing production of naval warships to 17 a year. He attacked China for “cheating” in the international economy by preventing capital flows, threatening to “label China as a currency manipulator” if he were elected president. And he pledged to follow through with his hard stance on immigration, building a fence along the Mexican border and waging a “war of attrition” against unauthorized immigrants. These are Romney’s compromises with a Tea Party that has long sought the restoration of American glory.

Yet even with respect to immigration—on which Romney has taken the most radical stance among the Republican candidates—Romney was clearly shying away from the far right. Following the promise to close off the Mexican border was a lengthy portrait of the Republican Party as the “pro-immigration party,” eager to provide for its immigrants as long as they would play by the rules. Romney claimed he would “stick a green card in [the] diploma” of any immigrant with a degree. But Romney’s appeal to the immigrant vote fell flat in a state where large immigrant populations have aroused vast anti-immigrant sentiment among the far right, eliciting only a spattering of terse applause.

Before Romney took the stage, Robbie Benjamin, a female business owner from Rhode Island, gave a brief introduction. Standing nervously before the crowd, Benjamin checked her notecards before describing Romney’s qualities. “He’s honest, ethical, and smart,” she said. “We just had a few minutes with him, had a good time, able to talk to him, and recognize all those qualities.” Behind her, Romney’s campaign staff ushered rows of women into the riser at the back of the auditorium, perfectly in line to be picked up by the camera. “Women who own businesses have a tough time, and it’s time to make a change,” Benjamin said. “He is clearly the person we should have for our president.”

With recent political controversies over women’s rights issues, Romney made sure to return to the female question early and often in his speech. “This is a president who has some explaining to do to the women of America,” Romney announced. “The Democrats, I think, in anticipation of the anger of the women in America have been saying, ‘Oh, Republicans are waging a war on women.’ Oh no. The real war on women has been waged by this president’s economic policies. They have failed American women.”

Romney went on to claim that “over 92 percent of jobs lost under this president were lost by women.” This is a statistic that Romney has been offering throughout his April campaign. It does little to address the women’s rights issues at hand—Romney still supports the overturn of Roe v. Wade—and is not the best measure of gender in the economy. The 92 percent claim, while accurate, appears to be the fault of timing rather than policy. In December 2007, male employment plummeted by over three million jobs, beginning to stabilize in the early months of the Obama administration. Meanwhile, female employment continued to rise until March 2008, only beginning its descent after Obama’s inauguration. It is generally regarded as a natural phenomenon of economic recessions that the first industries to be hit hardest are generally male-dominated—construction, manufacturing. Only later on are female-dominated professions like retail, teaching, and secretarial work affected by the recession.

Romney’s use and reuse of the statistic highlights again the two-faced campaign strategy, at once far right and dead center. Trailing 18 percentage points behind Obama with female voters, it is clear why Romney focused so much of his Town Hall speech on women’s issues. Yet Romney’s approach feels less reconciliatory than confused, a wavering balance between moderation and extremism.

In the Q&A section following his speech, Romney passed the microphone to an older woman in a turtleneck sitting in the front row. “My concern, and I’d be interested in your reaction, is that America’s become a bunch of people sitting on their couch waiting for the check to come from the government,” she said. “It is a different view of America, and I’d be interested in your take on who’s going to win that battle.”

Romney responded with grace. “There will be people, no question, who will vote for the candidate that promise the most free stuff,” he noted, with growing applause from the audience. “Fortunately, as I go across the country, the great majority of people, in my view, who are on unemployment today—they want a job.” The crowd remained silent. “We are still a hardworking, patriotic people. I’m convinced of that.”

Romney had been offered a Tea Party softball with simple instructions: decry the welfare state, glorify the entrepreneur. Instead, to the surprise of the Rhode Island audience, he offered his moderate Republicanism, refusing to play into the Tea Party welfare myth that persisted through the primaries.

Even with the exceptional turnout at the Town Hall, Rhode Island remains a lost cause for the presidential election. A recent poll showed Obama leading by 17 percent in the Ocean State. Romney’s Town Hall meeting, as a result, became an experiment testing a centrist platform that he hopes will appeal to swing voters. In doing so, however, Romney managed to alienate the small base of Republicans he has left in the state.  At the Small Business Town Hall, at least, the Republican fervor of the Crowne Plaza Hotel lobby had faded into a sort of casual acceptance. Romney, too, appeared exhausted—the Town Hall was the last stop on a long nationwide tour. “I’m gonna get to spend the night in my own bed tonight,” he said with excitement. “I think I’ve done that two or three times since Christmas.”

DAVID ADLER B’14 was born free.