Prime contender rejects tea party line 

During last year’s midterm elections, tea party activists swamped Republican primaries and helped send dozens of lawmakers to Washington who were committed to fighting big government. But the once-feared constituency is looking more like a paper tiger in the Republican presidential race.

The tea party movement was fueled by opposition to the Wall Street bailouts and out-of-control spending in Washington. Yet the current favorite to win the Republican nomination has rejected the tea party line on all of these issues.

During this week’s New Hampshire debate, Mitt Romney effectively endorsed the 2008 Wall Street bailout. Though he criticized the implementation, he defended the governing philosophy behind the move:

“My experience tells me that we were on the precipice, and we could have had a complete meltdown of our entire financial system, wiping out all the savings of the American people,” he said. “So action had to be taken.”

Romney has also stood by his Massachusetts health care legislation, which served as the model for Obamacare.

Both laws expand Medicaid, require citizens to purchase insurance or pay a fine, and provide government subsidies to individuals to purchase government-designed insurance plans on government-run exchanges. Obama and Romney even consulted several of the same advisors when crafting their plans.

Defending his plan during the debate, Romney boasted, “I care about people.” And those who reject the type of government-run health care he imposed on Massachusetts don’t?

Though Romney has talked about getting government spending under control in the abstract, he has shown little willingness to take on the true driver of our long-term debt crisis, which is our nation’s broken entitlement system.

If anything, he’s campaigned as its protector.

When Texas Gov. Rick Perry called Social Security a Ponzi scheme, Romney launched a sustained attack against him for being too critical of the program. In a recent appearance at a Florida senior citizens community, Romney declared, “When you see your friends with signs that say ‘Keep your hands off our Medicare,’ they are absolutely right.”

Last month, Romney wrote an essay outlining how he would control federal spending. He mentioned Medicaid reform, but not Medicare or Social Security.

Romney is running as an unabashedly establishment candidate, something that would have been a death sentence in last year’s tea party-dominated Republican primaries, yet even Rush Limbaugh had to acknowledge this week that “Romney is gonna get this nomination if nothing changes.”

Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and Texas Gov. Rick Perry had hoped to ride a wave of tea party support to the nomination, but their candidacies have lost steam.

Herman Cain is presently benefitting from the anti-establishment wave, but he is only just now coming under serious presidential scrutiny. And Cain isn’t totally pure either — like Romney, he’s expressed support for the Wall Street bailout in theory, just not in practice.

Collectively, Romney’s rivals have been either unwilling or unable to challenge him during debates.

We saw a pattern in House and Senate primaries last year of tea party favorites burying candidates tagged with the “establishment” label. But it’s much easier to pull this off at the state or district level, where a candidate can surge in the last few weeks of a race and capture the nomination. Any serious presidential candidate has to endure months of scrutiny and win a string of primaries across the country.

There are still months before the first votes are cast, so things can change. But if Romney ends up with the nomination, it will be a major blow to the tea party’s political influence.

Philip Klein is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner.

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