Commentary Magazine


Topic: RomneyCare

Serious Misfire by Romney Staffer

Mitt Romney’s Press Secretary Andrea Saul was hit with a biblical flood of conservative outrage yesterday, after she mentioned that the steelworker’s wife in the Priorities USA ad would have had health insurance under Romneycare if she had been living in Massachusetts. Calls for Saul’s firing (and eulogies for the Romney campaign) commenced immediately.

In an interview with Fox News Channel on Wednesday, Andrea Saul invoked Massachusetts’s expansion of health coverage as a defense to a harsh new ad funded by a super PAC supporting President Obama. In the spot, a former steelworker whose plant was closed by Bain Capital blames Romney, who co-founded the firm, for his family’s loss of health insurance and his wife’s subsequent death from cancer.

“To that point, if people had been in Massachusetts, under Governor Romney’s health care plan, they would have had health care,” Saul said in the interview. “There are a lot of people losing their jobs and losing their health care in President Obama’s economy.”

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Mitt Romney’s Press Secretary Andrea Saul was hit with a biblical flood of conservative outrage yesterday, after she mentioned that the steelworker’s wife in the Priorities USA ad would have had health insurance under Romneycare if she had been living in Massachusetts. Calls for Saul’s firing (and eulogies for the Romney campaign) commenced immediately.

In an interview with Fox News Channel on Wednesday, Andrea Saul invoked Massachusetts’s expansion of health coverage as a defense to a harsh new ad funded by a super PAC supporting President Obama. In the spot, a former steelworker whose plant was closed by Bain Capital blames Romney, who co-founded the firm, for his family’s loss of health insurance and his wife’s subsequent death from cancer.

“To that point, if people had been in Massachusetts, under Governor Romney’s health care plan, they would have had health care,” Saul said in the interview. “There are a lot of people losing their jobs and losing their health care in President Obama’s economy.”

Saul’s comment was accurate; the worker would have been insured under Romney’s plan. And as both TNR’s Noam Scheiber and TPM’s Benjy Sarlin have noted, her remark may not have been as off-message as it initially sounded.

That being said, this was still a serious misfire. The Obama campaign and Priorities USA are getting shredded in the media for the Joe Soptic ad. Conservatives are leaping to Romney’s defense. Why trample all that by reminding the right of the one issue that made them reluctant to support Romney in the first place?

Saul’s comment was also irrelevant. She didn’t need to debate the ad on its “merits.” Just point out what virtually every fact-checker has noted — that the story in the ad crumbles under scrutiny. Joe Soptic was laid off years after Romney left Bain; his wife continued to have health insurance through her own job; and his wife passed away five years after Soptic lost his job. There was absolutely no reason to inject Romneycare into the debate.

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Romney’s Personal Mandate Problem

Say this about Mitt Romney. He’s not one to let a problem fester if he can do something about it. When senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom asserted on Monday that Romney did not believe that the ObamaCare individual mandate was a tax, it ensured the Republican candidate a day’s worth of negative attention. So Romney broke up his July 4th holiday by appearing on CBS News to contradict Fehrnstrom’s stance and position himself with the rest of his party that is eager to capitalize on the Supreme Court’s ruling that allowed the mandate to stand because it is a tax. However, in doing so, Romney was again forced to explain the difference between ObamaCare and his own Massachusetts health care plan that also had a personal mandate.

The problem for Romney isn’t so much the opportunity for the Obama campaign and newspapers such as the New York Times to call him a flip-flopper. It is that any discussion of the details of the president’s signature health care bill invariably involves a comparison to the GOP candidate’s own not entirely dissimilar bill and forces him to eschew the clear rhetoric about taxes and economic freedom which show him at his best and instead engage in the far less engaging hair-splitting about the differences between federal and state legislation. Despite the spin coming from the White House, the tax issue is a problem for the Democrats because they know the labeling of the mandate in this manner means that President Obama broke his word about raising taxes on the middle class and achieved ObamaCare’s passage by a deception. But the more Romney has to engage in what Politico calls “semantic and legalistic (you might say artificial) distinction(s)” about ObamaCare, the less able he is to rally to his side an American people who dislike the mandate and the bill.

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Say this about Mitt Romney. He’s not one to let a problem fester if he can do something about it. When senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom asserted on Monday that Romney did not believe that the ObamaCare individual mandate was a tax, it ensured the Republican candidate a day’s worth of negative attention. So Romney broke up his July 4th holiday by appearing on CBS News to contradict Fehrnstrom’s stance and position himself with the rest of his party that is eager to capitalize on the Supreme Court’s ruling that allowed the mandate to stand because it is a tax. However, in doing so, Romney was again forced to explain the difference between ObamaCare and his own Massachusetts health care plan that also had a personal mandate.

The problem for Romney isn’t so much the opportunity for the Obama campaign and newspapers such as the New York Times to call him a flip-flopper. It is that any discussion of the details of the president’s signature health care bill invariably involves a comparison to the GOP candidate’s own not entirely dissimilar bill and forces him to eschew the clear rhetoric about taxes and economic freedom which show him at his best and instead engage in the far less engaging hair-splitting about the differences between federal and state legislation. Despite the spin coming from the White House, the tax issue is a problem for the Democrats because they know the labeling of the mandate in this manner means that President Obama broke his word about raising taxes on the middle class and achieved ObamaCare’s passage by a deception. But the more Romney has to engage in what Politico calls “semantic and legalistic (you might say artificial) distinction(s)” about ObamaCare, the less able he is to rally to his side an American people who dislike the mandate and the bill.

Romney is on firm ground when he aligns himself with the dissent by the four conservatives on the High Court who denounced ObamaCare. But if the mandate in the president’s bill is a tax, then so was the one in RomneyCare, even if he and the Massachusetts legislature called it a penalty as the president and the Democrats did of their legislation. Chief Justice John Roberts’ majority opinion drew a distinction between state and federal mandates which dovetails with the talking points about health care that Romney has been putting forward for the last year and allows the candidate to claim some degree of vindication. But for the ordinary citizen, it is still a distinction without a difference.

More to the point, being mired in this linguistic tangle is pretty much the opposite of what the Republican standard-bearer needs to be doing if he is going to mobilize his party’s Tea Party base this fall. While the unpopularity of ObamaCare and anger about the personal mandate’s assault on liberty is a key asset to his campaign, Romney’s necessarily careful approach to the issue is a problem that isn’t going away.

Nevertheless, Romney did the right thing by quickly walking back Fehrnstrom’s latest blunder and taking the hit for it in the midst of a holiday. As he well knows, his hopes of victory rest more on his ability to point out the president’s poor economic record. With a new jobs report due out on Friday, this kerfuffle was best dealt with yesterday before what may be the latest dose of bad news hits the White House.

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Did Romney Just Strike Out on ObamaCare?

The only consolation left to conservatives after Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts’ puzzling decision to uphold ObamaCare was that Republican nominee Mitt Romney could have used the labeling of the bill’s individual mandate as a tax to hammer the president this fall on what many in the GOP have labeled as a huge tax increase on the American people. But yesterday, top Romney advisor Eric Fehrnstrom, the man who gave the Democrats the epithet “etch-a-sketch” with which to label his boss, stepped in it again. Fehrnstrom told MSNBC that the former Massachusetts governor doesn’t think the mandate is a tax, a point that dovetails nicely with Democratic talking points about the issue and flatly contradicts what most Republicans have been saying about it.

In his defense, Fehrnstrom was saying that Romney agreed with Justice Scalia’s dissent which, had it been joined by Roberts, would have struck down ObamaCare as unconstitutional and which dismissed the argument that it was a tax. But by rejecting the opening offered to the GOP by the Court, Romney has undermined the contrast between the two parties on the issue. If, as the Weekly Standard wrote, ObamaCare offered the Republican challenger “a hanging curveball waiting to be hit out of the park,” Romney may have just whiffed on it.

This is the first genuine misstep by the Romney campaign after months of behaving like a smoothly run machine destined for victory. But even worse than that is the obvious suspicion that the problem here is a desire on Romney’s part to cover his tracks on his Massachusetts health care bill — because the “penalties” in Romney’s bill can also be branded as a tax — and a sign he won’t be able to take advantage of the president’s vulnerability.

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The only consolation left to conservatives after Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts’ puzzling decision to uphold ObamaCare was that Republican nominee Mitt Romney could have used the labeling of the bill’s individual mandate as a tax to hammer the president this fall on what many in the GOP have labeled as a huge tax increase on the American people. But yesterday, top Romney advisor Eric Fehrnstrom, the man who gave the Democrats the epithet “etch-a-sketch” with which to label his boss, stepped in it again. Fehrnstrom told MSNBC that the former Massachusetts governor doesn’t think the mandate is a tax, a point that dovetails nicely with Democratic talking points about the issue and flatly contradicts what most Republicans have been saying about it.

In his defense, Fehrnstrom was saying that Romney agreed with Justice Scalia’s dissent which, had it been joined by Roberts, would have struck down ObamaCare as unconstitutional and which dismissed the argument that it was a tax. But by rejecting the opening offered to the GOP by the Court, Romney has undermined the contrast between the two parties on the issue. If, as the Weekly Standard wrote, ObamaCare offered the Republican challenger “a hanging curveball waiting to be hit out of the park,” Romney may have just whiffed on it.

This is the first genuine misstep by the Romney campaign after months of behaving like a smoothly run machine destined for victory. But even worse than that is the obvious suspicion that the problem here is a desire on Romney’s part to cover his tracks on his Massachusetts health care bill — because the “penalties” in Romney’s bill can also be branded as a tax — and a sign he won’t be able to take advantage of the president’s vulnerability.

Last summer many if not most conservatives dismissed Romney’s chances of winning the Republican presidential nomination because of his personal baggage on the one issue that appeared to be the most important at the time: ObamaCare. If Romney confounded those critics it was not because he convinced most Republicans by his arguments that RomneyCare was a completely differently animal than ObamaCare. Rather, it was because the sinking economy and what seemed to be a real chance the Court would strike down the president’s bill rendered health care a secondary issue.

If the Court’s upholding of ObamaCare on the grounds that it is a tax is the equivalent of an engraved invitation to the Tea Party to wake up and “refight the political battles of two years ago,” as the president fears, it is also an unwelcome reminder this is an issue on which Romney is not going to be able to hit the home run that conservatives rightly expect from the GOP standard-bearer.

Though this unwillingness to use the word tax doesn’t necessarily doom Romney, it does call into question his ability to rally his party on the issue. Those Republicans expecting their candidate to use last week’s decision to generate some momentum this summer may be sorely disappointed. As much as the unpopularity of ObamaCare presents the GOP with a golden opportunity to exploit, it may well be that the only way for Mitt Romney to be elected president is via general dissatisfaction about the economy and not via a wave of disgust about the president’s health care dictat.

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