According to some, Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, would seem to have a problem with the Tea Party element in his own party. And it boils down to the question: What kind of Republican is he?
Founded as a reaction to economic stimulus packages started under George W. Bush and ramped up under Barack Obama, the Tea Party is heavy on anti-government rhetoric. Indeed, if you paid attention only to the talk of smaller government and self-sufficiency, you might think it represented the libertarian wing of a party that 's been struggling with split personalities for some time now.
But if the Tea Party was conceived as a libertarian idea, it's grown into something else entirely. Ron Paul, after all, was never its first choice. Rather, members cycled through Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain and Rick Santorum, many of whom praised small government, but spent as much or more time playing to the family-values crowd -- which isn't exactly opposed to big-government legislation regarding marriage, abortion and other social issues.
And Mitt Romney is on his way to the nomination despite supporting a massive economic stimulus and an individual health-care mandate.
Behind the anti-government rhetoric, many conservatives see government as an essential force for national security and the maintenance of cultural uprightness. These big-government conservatives, which comprise a sizable chunk of the Republican base, "tend to care more about structures that have to do with the order of society, such as national security ... or, religious issues," said Bruce Haynes, a managing partner with the Purple Strategies Group.
There's a reason why "social conservatives," as they are typically called, also happen to back candidates who are foreign-policy hawks and sometimes support broad economic intervention by the government: They see governmental force as a necessary intervention into the chaos of unrestrained liberty. When push comes to shove, law and order trump individual freedoms (similar to the way that for many Democrats, social progress trumps individual freedoms). For example, when researchers Paul Sniderman and Sean Theriault tested the effect of different messaging on individualist-minded participants, when asked about the rights of extremist groups to protest, their support dropped from 89% to 53% if reminded about the potential risk of violence.
Academics typically refer to this ideology as "hierarchical," given the group's penchant for seeking out leaders who can quell potential conflict, just like the chain of command is set up to do in the army. Professor Brian Rathbun found that "hierarchs" were more supportive of prayer in school, busing, military superiority, preemptive military action -- even redistribution of wealth and environmental regulation. They showed the least support for human rights, international aid and an isolationist foreign policy -- the perfect profile of Mitt Romney and his conservative backers.
For this brand of conservative, setting up the economy as a threat to security allows Mr. Romney to pivot in way that 's consistent with this law-and-order constituency. Indeed, Romney has taken this exact approach in defending his support of the economic bailout. "Clearly, if you think the entire financial system is going to collapse, you take action to keep that from happening," he said during a CNBC debate last year.
Health care, too, could be rephrased as a threat to the economic order. "If you believe that the health-care system is this country is in crisis, then the mandate is an acceptable way for conservatives to provide order in that system," argued Mr. Haynes.
But in this matter, Mr. Romney has so far chosen to distance himself from his earlier record.
Despite his lack of sex appeal with key elements of the GOP, Mr. Romney is still all but certain to be the party's candidate. Some point to his rather large bankroll, but having the financial support of billionaire-financed Super PACs did little to power Newt Gingrich to the finish line. Others note that the "party establishment" wanted him to win. Ultimately, the primary boiled down to the usual mix of gaffes, self-inflicted wounds, cash-poor campaigns and a certain number of voters giving one candidate more delegates than the others.
And though Mr. Romney never did catch fire and though there were those Republicans who vowed never to vote for him, a quick read of Republican-leaning blogs indicates that even detractors are appreciating his penchant for taking the fight to the Obama campaign now that he seems free of primary challengers.
For many in the GOP, libertarian and law-and-order Republicans alike, Mr. Romney is the only type of Republican that matters: the one that 's running.