STRATHAM, N.H. — Mitt Romney’s kickoff of his “Every Town Counts” bus tour of six states, from the farm in New Hampshire where he announced his latest run for the presidency, was a mostly familiar affair, down to the predictably mocking “Every Millionaire Counts” sign trailing behind an old propeller plane, intruding on the proceedings from above.
Speaking very broadly, Romney cited the American spirit and American values repeatedly, and depicted Barack Obama as a detached and disappointing figure. Nothing surprising there. But when Romney began extolling the virtues of small-town America, which is usually an occasion for Republican politicians to tout (somewhat condescendingly) the moral superiority of rural Americans, he offered a welcome variant on the theme.
“We should never forget that some of America’s biggest dreams were also born in our smallest communities,” he said. “Our small towns have given us great writers, great thinkers, and great leaders.” He went on to mention the Thomas Edison, Mark Twain, and the Wright Brothers.
This was impressive for several reasons. For one, if small towns are to be a metaphor for “real” American values, it’s good to locate those values in the highest aspirations of those living there. Thinking big is, indeed, a part of the American character, and it’s what many GOP leaders seem to miss while citing the bake sales, Little League games, and church suppers that supposedly attest to the moral grounding of rural communities. And Romney’s small-town tribute was also notable in that it didn’t depict cities, either explicitly or implicitly, as centers of iniquity; he never tried to contrast heartland verities with coastal decadence.
Romney seemed to recognize that “small town” American values aren’t synonymous with right-wing social policies. They include such politically anodyne attitudes as making the most of opportunities and applying the virtues of free enterprise to the betterment of society. The story of how two bicycle-shop owners solved the problem of heavier-than-air flight that had vexed the great professors of Europe is a foundational anecdote, an American proverb, for a reason.
Anyone who comes from a small town knows that rural values are about more than practicing religion and the right to bear arms, though you wouldn’t know it from most political rallies in such communities. It was refreshing to hear a Republican politician steer clear of the usual stereotypes.