COLLINS: Romney pandering to the Empty Places

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Gail CollinsOur biggest political division is the war between the empty places and the crowded places.

It’s natural. People who live in crowded places tend to appreciate government. It’s the thing that sets boundaries on public behavior, protects them from burglars and cleans the streets. If anything, they’d like it to do more.

The people who live in empty places don’t see the point. If a burglar decides to break in, that’s what they’ve got guns for. Other folks don’t get in their way because their way is really, really remote. Government just makes trouble and costs money.

The Tea Party is so Empty Places. Do you remember that Tea Party rally in Washington last year over the budget crisis? (That would be the spring budget crisis as opposed to the many other seasonal versions.) “Nobody wants the government to shut down,” began Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, diplomatically. “Yes we do!” cried voices from the crowd.

The Empty Theory made a lot of sense when the country was full of isolated farms, but it lost its mojo when the farmland filled up with suburbs and we elected a long series of presidents who were, to one degree or another, Modified Crowded. But now Empty is making a comeback, less an expression of physical reality than a state of mind. People living on Social Security and Medicare in a 400-unit condo development built with federal subsidies can march to their congressman’s town-hall meeting and demand that he get government out of their hair.

Lately, I’ve been fascinated with Texas, the perfect exemplar of the New Empty. Its population is approaching 26 million, mostly urban-suburbanites. But many of them believe they’re on the lone prairie. “Ask my students,” a professor at Texas A&M University told me. “They all associate themselves with the country. They think of Texas as open wide, but 80 percent of the people in Texas live in one of the major metropolitan areas.”

Romney may be conservative, but he’s hopelessly Crowded Places. You may remember the cringe-inducing moment in 2007 when he started bragging about his prowess as an outdoorsman. (“I purchased a gun when I was a young man. I’ve been a hunter pretty much all my life.”)

Inquiring minds checked the hunting licenses in all the places that Mitt had at some point called home and determined that he’d never applied for one. “I’ve always been a rodent and rabbit hunter,” he amended. “Small varmints, if you will.”

Supporters describe this as a harmless bit of self-dramatization to emphasize Romney’s strong commitment to gun rights. Although actually, when he ran for the U.S. Senate and served as governor, he appeared to be very enthusiastic about gun control. (We could do this sort of thing all day. Having Mitt Romney as a presidential candidate is going to be one long Where’s Waldo on the issues front.)

But until he dropped out of the race, varmint hunting was the dog on the roof of Romney’s 2008 campaign.

When he was leading Massachusetts, Romney tried to make the state’s programs work better. Now he seems to be going for the lonely-but-throbbing heart of the Empty Places credo, which focuses much less on fixing government than simply getting rid of it.

Last month, he announced that the country doesn’t need “more firemen, more policemen, more teachers.” When that turned out to be overkill, Mitt backtracked, saying that localities pay for popular public employees like firefighters while, as president, he’d be dealing only with the unloved federal work force. (We have not really heard much about which of those workers he wants to see go. Social Security administrators? Park rangers? I’m putting my money on bank regulators and Securities and Exchange Commission enforcers.)

This fall, the Republican Party is going to be running on the Empty Places war cry, and it’s ironic that Mitt Romney’s supposed to be the one to lead the charge. Maybe he’ll one-up Rick Perry and find four federal agencies to promise to close. Maybe he’ll bag a deer. Or a moose. They’re serious this time around.•

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Collins is editor of The New York Times editorial page. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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