- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Mitt Romney’s opening pitch for a third shot at the White House left many Republicans scratching their heads, in part because his plans to fight poverty and tyranny seemed to borrow the lexicon of liberals like FDR, LBJ and Woodrow Wilson.

With a full house of Republican National Committee members listening aboard the USS Midway in San Diego, Mr. Romney implored his party last week “to lift people out of poverty” and “to make the world safe.”

The first phrase is a favorite of liberals who gush over Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society programs that put the government at the forefront of fighting poverty. The latter phrase was a tenet of Wilson’s foreign policy doctrine, cemented in part by his 1917 speech declaring war on Germany.

While Republicans applauded Mr. Romney’s attention to the issues of poverty and national security, many said they were concerned that the former Massachusetts governor’s language implied government intervention over self-reliance and nation-building over national security.

Dave Battaglia, a Pennsylvania tea party activist and the elected chairman of the Armstrong County Board of Commissioners, summed up the concerns of many conservatives who chafed at Mr. Romney’s choice of words.

“The expression ‘lift people out of poverty’ is not a conservative principle,” Mr. Battaglia said. “It implies that government is the answer. Government is not the answer.

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“Restoring the American family structure and encouraging self-reliance, not government reliance, is how people emerge from poverty,” he said.

Spokesmen did not immediately return calls seeking comment Tuesday on Mr. Romney’s choice of words.

With a crowded field of potential contenders, the RNC speech was supposed to be Mr. Romney’s opening argument on why he deserved a third shot at the Republican Party nomination after two unsuccessful attempts.

Conservatives say Mr. Romney’s performance only awakened their fears that he is too trusting in government to solve problems and less a believer in competition, opportunity and self-reliance — the ideals of Ronald Reagan, who famously quipped that the government declared war on poverty and poverty won.

“We can’t win the presidency if we can’t motivate our party’s base to get behind our candidate, and Romney didn’t do it in 2012 and I don’t know of anything he can do to motivate the base in 2016,” said Alabama Republican Party Chairman Bill Armistead, who comes from the evangelical Christian wing of the GOP.

Mr. Armistead said Mr. Romney “will not motivate the base by promising government programs to lift people out of poverty. LBJ tried that with the Great Society, and poverty has continued to grow.”

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The official U.S. poverty rate as calculated by the Census Bureau in fact has improved slightly, to 15 percent in 2012 from 19 percent in 1964. Under President Obama, however, poverty has worsened while reliance on government has grown.

Mr. Armistead said he also prefers a less-interventionist approach than Mr. Romney’s when it comes to fighting wars abroad to keep Americans safe.
“We need to make the USA safer by protecting our borders,” Mr. Armistead said, “and if we make our country safer, we contribute to making the world safer.”

Matt Schlapp, who served as a George W. Bush adviser and is current chairman of the American Conservative Union, offered his own assessment about Mr. Romney’s speech. “Conservatives want a presidential nominee who understands that government has to get out of the way and has to quit trying to meddle and ‘help,’” he said.

Some Republicans went out of their way to be diplomatic, noting that it has been a long time since Jack Kemp and Newt Gingrich offered conservative visions for fighting poverty and applauding Mr. Romney for having the courage to put the issue back onto the table.

“Raising people out of poverty should be and is our goal as conservatives, so I have no quarrel with Romney’s words,” Texas Republican Party Chairman Steve Munisteri said.

“But ‘to lift people out of poverty’ means nothing until Romney tells me how he plans to do it — show people how to grow apples or how to swipe a piece of apple pie from someone else’s kitchen?” said Mr. Munisteri, a former Texas Young Americans for Freedom chairman and the only Texas Republican Party chairman in decades not to come from the GOP’s evangelical wing.

Colorado Republican Party Chairman Ryan Call summed up the conundrum that many described in listening to Mr. Romney: applause for the issue but a desire to substitute for his words the language he should have used.

“The themes Mitt Romney outlined in his recent remarks reflect important principles that our conservative party has long championed,” Mr. Call said.

But he added: “Republicans measure success not on how many more Americans are dependent on government welfare or entitlement programs, but instead by how many Americans are less reliant on such programs because they’ve been able to find and keep a good-paying job that allows them provide for their own family and affords them the dignity and self-respect that comes from honest work.”

Mr. Call had less to argue about with Mr. Romney’s call for an interventionist foreign policy.

“Republican presidents like Ronald Reagan and even many former Democrat presidents understood that an engaged America, with a strong military capacity and presence, leads to a safer and more prosperous world,” he said. “When our enemies are emboldened because they no longer fear us, and our friends no longer trust or respect us because we can’t be counted on to lead with clarity or keep our promises, the world becomes a more dangerous and unstable place.”

In his aircraft carrier speech Friday, Mr. Romney drew approving nods by singing the song of conservatism just as every other Republican presidential hopeful has come to do reflexively since the party’s golden era of the 1980s.

“In the post-Obama period, conservative principles are needed as perhaps never before in our lifetime,” the 2012 presidential nominee told the RNC members dining on a deck of the World War II-era aircraft carrier, now a floating museum.

“I want to mention three principles that I think should form part of the foundation of what we take to the American people,” said Mr. Romney, who sent an advance team to the carrier and showed up with contingent of campaign aides buttonholing members even though he has no official presidential nomination campaign or even a definite declaration to create one.

“First, we have to make the world safer,” Mr. Romney solemnly said. “Second, we have to make sure and provide opportunity for all Americans regardless of the neighborhood they live in.”

Then came the third “principle” that some Republicans said almost caused them to gag in disbelief — even while a few others nodded approvingly: “We have to lift people out of poverty.”

“If we communicate those three things effectively, the American people are going to be with us and with our nominee, and with our candidates across the country,” said the man whom Democrats and many Republicans long ago tagged as the father of Obamacare.

“We are an abundant nation,” he said. “We have the resources and the capacity intellectually, financially, to lift people out of poverty. It was how many years ago, 50 years ago, Lyndon Baines Johnson declared the war on poverty. His heart was in the right place. Income inequality has gotten worse. His policies have not worked. Their liberal policies are good every four years for a campaign, but they don’t get the job done. The only policies that will reach into the hearts of American people and pull people out of poverty and break the cycle of poverty are Republican principles, conservative principles.”

If Mr. Romney gets a third shot at winning the White House, Louisiana Republican Party Chairman Roger Villere hopes it will embody what he regards as true conservative values and a more careful lexicon.

“I believe in all three conservative principles Romney laid out. If by ‘safe’ he means protecting our borders and our assets such as ships, planes etc.; if by ‘opportunity for all’ he means lower taxes and strengthening our free enterprise system; and if by ‘lifting people out of poverty’ he means shrinking government and allowing the free market to work.”

• Ralph Z. Hallow can be reached at rhallow@gmail.com.

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