There is an upside to being angry candidate

Published 3:57 pm Tuesday, January 31, 2012

If Mitt Romney wants to win the Republican nomination for president this year, which he clearly does, he has one big hurdle to overcome: it has something to do with his anger.

During the final debate before the Florida primary, former Pennsylvania senator — and winner of the Iowa caucus — Rick Santorum took the opportunity to show some contrast between himself, front-runner Romney and former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. He homed in, as he had in the previous Florida debate, on the health-care plan that Romney shepherded into law while governor of Massachusetts.    

Romney stunned my typical tweeting-at-the-TV self into silence as he responded to Santorum: “It’s not worth getting angry about.”

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For conservative voters who don’t trust Romney, period, and trust him even less on health care — who are worried that he did, in fact, set the stage for Obamacare — it was not the best answer. It wasn’t the best answer, because Santorum’s point was that a government approach to health-care reform isn’t the best one, and that the discussion of health-care reform has to start from a position of freedom, not federal mandates. It wasn’t the best answer because one of the most energetic and vital grassroots movements to strike a chord with voters in recent years — the tea party — sprung from activists angry at the terrible state of the status quo.

It wasn’t the best answer, either, because in the coming weeks and months, I predict that we will see a whole new engagement from religious Americans concerned about the things they will be forced to accept from government-controlled health care. The Obama administration has made clear that taxpayer money will fund contraceptives, sterilization and some drugs that could cause abortions Furthermore, religious organizations that oppose such things will be forced under the law to provide them in employee health-care plans, regardless. The rhetoric this campaign season has suggested that radical, religious Republicans want to take away your personal choice to use birth control. To the contrary: This radical administration wants to insist that things like abortion are part and parcel of basic health care, and that everyone will be forced to pay for it. That’s clearly worth a little rage.

True, Romney is wise not to join the Occupy screamers, campaign-rally hecklers and talking-head interrupters. And yet, there is clearly something that resonates with voters about Gingrich. Is it because he is the most entertaining? Maybe for some. Because he never hesitates to challenge anyone who questions him? Maybe for others. Is it because he is the ultimate Beltway outsider? Not so much. But could it be that he seems to embody a sense of immediacy and impatience that voters across the board seem to be feeling?

When Romney quotes lyrics from patriotic songs, recalling his youthful cross-country trips with his parents in their Rambler, this is actually what he’s trying to relay: a conservatism, a desire to preserve the country of his youth, the country he was raised to love — a country that won’t last, unless people are willing to fight for it, in principle and policy.

But an understandably skeptical voting public needs more. And Romney hurts himself — and shortchanges his experience and his message — when he dismisses anger. People are disappointed, hurting, and yes, angry. They rightly feel this way about a government that not only gets involved in private matters where it has no business butting in, but that blatantly violates what I and many people believe, forcing mass violations of conscience.

And people are worried: Once the government gets its way on health care, what’s next? Romney doesn’t have to, and shouldn’t, raise his voice or bully anybody. But he does have to demonstrate that he not only understands the concerns that Rick Santorum voiced, but that he can unite Americans and raise up that which is best about this land we love: her freedom.

(Kathryn Lopez can be contacted at