The 2012 Republican presidential field is so wide open that virtually any of the candidates or potential candidates can make a plausible case for winning the GOP nomination. All of the presidential wannabes are either relatively marginal or unknown figures, or as is the case with Mitt Romney, are so badly flawed that even wide name recognition and vast financial resources are probably not enough to outweigh the liabilities. While any of them might conceivably win, none should be rated a favorite.
But the New York Times, which covered the Tea Party-inspired Republican upsurge in 2010 as if it were studying a tribe of pygmy cannibals on a National Geographic Special, is still having trouble grasping conservative voter sentiment. Writing in the paper’s political blog The Caucus, Michael D. Shear offers the fifth anniversary of Romney’s Massachusetts health care program as proof the former Bay State governor really is the Republican front-runner. While many believe it is Romney’s Achilles’ heel, Shear takes the opposite view. The fact that both Democrats and fellow Republicans are bashing him over “Romneycare,” Shear says, is proof that the 64-year-old is “the Republican to beat.”
The criticisms being lobbed at Romney might be construed as the compliment that also-rans pay to the frontrunner. Romney has a lot going for him. He has money, a winning personality, and the sort of central-casting looks that give him the mien of a president. And as someone who ran last time and lost, he fits the the Republican pattern of being next in line for the nomination—a party habit that helped the elder George Bush, Robert Dole, and John McCain to the GOP nomination. But if 2010 established anything, it is that such “rules” no longer apply. And even if they did, they don’t in this situation. While Romney did mount a well-funded challenge for the presidency in 2008, he wasn’t actually the GOP runner-up. That title belongs to Mike Huckabee, who won in Iowa and received more votes and delegates than Romney.
Moreover, while Romney’s name recognition is a huge advantage, there is little doubt that the main issue animating Republican voters these days is opposition to federal spending in general and Obamacare in particular. If both Republicans and Democrats are pointing out that his Massachusetts bill bears a fatal resemblance to Obamacare that isn’t a sign of strength. It merely highlights the almost impossible task that Romney faces in trying to explain why his government health care program was acceptable but Obama’s isn’t. Throw in the fact that up until now his greatest liability has been a well-deserved reputation for flip-flopping (abortion being just the most publicized of those reversals), and the vision of him as the Republican nominee for president in 2012 is unlikely.
Perhaps it is natural for the Times—a paper that treats the opposition to Obamacare by a consistent majority of Americans as an inconvenient truth to be ignored at all costs—to dismiss Romney’s contamination by this issue as a mere detail. A year is a lifetime in politics and nothing can be taken for granted about the outcome of the 2012 election. But to assume that Romney is the front-runner, as the Times does, is a leap of faith rooted more in ignorance of the Republican electorate than savvy reporting.