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What the Tea Party Heard at the First Presidential Debate

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There are some advantages to being a recovering politician not living inside the D.C. Beltway, foremost among them, the ability to listen to real people.

NOTE: This column originally appeared at FoxNews.com.


There are some advantages to being a recovering politician not living inside the D.C. Beltway, foremost among them, the ability to listen to real people.

A few days ago I met with a Tea Party group—in another era they were known as concerned citizens. It wasn’t long before the last Presidential debate was mentioned. Interestingly enough, what got this group of high information voters excited wasn’t the relative performance of the candidates and perceptions of who might have gained the upper hand—no, what enthused these voters was Gov. Mitt Romney’s specific mention of America’s founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and the issue of federalism.

For these voters the debate’s most revealing exchange came when the moderator asked, “Do you believe there’s a fundamental difference between the two of you as to how you view the mission of the federal government?”

President Obama responded, “The first role of the federal government is to keep the American people safe…”

Any king or potentate can say that the role of his government is to keep his people safe.

The Founders had a different idea—it was revolutionary. In setting the foundation for America in the Declaration of Independence, they wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. – That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men…”

In response, Gov. Romney had a vastly different take on the first purpose of government, saying, “The role of government – look behind us, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence (on the stage behind the candidates were the words of nation’s founding documents): The role of government is to promote and protect the principles of those documents. First, life and liberty...

Romney continued, “Second, in that line that says, we are endowed by our Creator with our rights – I believe we must maintain our commitment to religious tolerance and freedom in this country. That statement also says that we are endowed by our Creator with the right to pursue happiness as we choose… But we also believe in maintaining for individuals the right to pursue their dreams, and not to have the government substitute itself for the rights of free individuals. And what we’re seeing right now is, in my view, a – a trickle-down government approach which has government thinking it can do a better job than free people pursuing their dreams.”

In less than a minute, Gov. Romney allayed the concerns of millions of Americas who were aroused from political slumber in 2009 that he might present only a slight moderation away from the big government policies of the past.

But, Romney wasn’t done. He made four additional references to federalism, two in the area of education and two regarding health care. Then, to add even more clarity, Romney mentioned the 10th Amendment by name, calling the states, “laboratories of democracy” and making the case that the preferred, “…approach is one which relies on the brilliance of our people and states, not the federal government.”

As a former governor, Mr. Romney is a good position to understand that we have a dual sovereign form of government: the federal government and the many states, each with their own spheres of power, designed to break up the power of government and keep it as close to the people as possible. That he appears to understand this greatly energized a large swath of America that showed its potential in the 2010 elections.

Chuck DeVore is Vice President of Communications for the Texas Public Policy Foundation and served as a State Assemblyman in California from 2004 to 2010.