Though national polls continue to portray the Republican presidential race as a toss-up, the consensus is that the division of the conservative vote means it is still Mitt Romney’s to lose. That has led the frontrunner to sometimes act as if he is already running against Barack Obama rather than Rick Perry, Herman Cain and the rest of the GOP field. But while it makes sense for Romney to avoid tilting too far to the right, there is such a thing as playing it too safe. Romney’s statement yesterday about a union reform referendum in Ohio is exactly that sort of a mistake and may come back to haunt him.
While campaigning in Ohio yesterday, Romney stopped by a Republican phone bank where calls were being made to boost support for Governor John Kasich’s referendum that would institute a series of fundamental reforms for government worker unions. But when asked whether he supported the plan, Romney refused to state his position on the matter. That’s a problem not only because civil service reform has become an essential issue for Republicans this year, but also because Romney actually endorsed the measure back in June. So not only does Romney come across sounding like a RINO here, it also brings up the old flip-flop charge that is continually thrown in his face.
Kasich’s referendum is exactly the sort of thing reform-minded GOP governors — including Romney supporter Chris Christie — have been fighting for all over the country. It would ban government unions from bargaining over health insurance, require that all union members pay at least 10 percent of their wages toward their pensions, end seniority rights as the sole factor in layoffs, replace seniority pay raises with merit pay raises, ban these unions from striking, and make union dues voluntary. But it does not abrogate all rights of collective bargaining, as civil service unions would still be able to bargain about many issues including pay and working conditions.
Given these are all now mainstream Republican ideas which are essential to dealing with the impending financial catastrophe that bloated state worker contracts have created, it was hard to know what caused Romney to back off now. Opposing, or at least failing to back Kasich’s plan, would align the candidate with the Democrats in the great struggles over the issue in Wisconsin, New Jersey and other states. Though he subsequently issued a statement declaring that he does back Kasich, this not only gave an opening to Romney’s GOP rivals, it reinforced his image as someone whom conservatives can’t trust. If he wasn’t prepared to back union reform in Ohio now without having to be pushed into it, it’s fair to ask why he should be counted on to fight these battles on the federal level once he’s in the White House.
It’s understandable that the incompetence and incoherence of his main challengers has led Romney to think ahead to the general election. But he has to recognize he is still in a tough fight for the nomination that is far from over. More to the point, he needs to remember that in order to win next November, he needs a united Republican Party and an enthusiastic GOP activist core. More missteps like yesterday’s waffle in Ohio will make his general election strategy a moot point.