Last May, Mitt Romney decided to address his candidacy’s biggest problem head on. In a speech delivered in Michigan, the Republican presidential candidate refused to apologize for his Massachusetts health care law that some see as an inspiration for Obamacare and instead argued that there were crucial differences between a state-run plan and the president’s federal boondoggle. The explanation was logical, but it was beside the point. After the bitter debate over Obamacare, most Republicans were united in their opposition to any government mandate to buy insurance. That should have doomed his campaign, but the incompetence of his opponents has left him, almost by default, in a strong position to win the nomination.
Nevertheless, Romney continues to be assailed on the issue. In today’s Politico, Kate Nocera provides his campaign with another talking point. She reports that the bill that went into law was far different from what Romney actually wanted and that the implementation of the legislation by a Democratic successor in the Massachusetts governor’s chair has furthered his intentions. That may be true, but Romney would be well advised to avoid additional explanations that will only embitter conservatives. A better course of action would be for him to speak as little as possible about the issue and pray the Supreme Court strikes down Obamacare next June.
As one of those who thought Romneycare would be an insurmountable obstacle to his nomination, I have to confess I’m still surprised at the inability of the other Republicans to score points on the issue at his expense. Though some are still swinging away at Romney, the latest twist in the GOP race may have ensured that it will cease to be a major worry for him.
If we are to believe the latest polls, Romney’s chief rival is now Newt Gingrich rather than Rick Perry, Herman Cain or any of the others. I’m skeptical about Gingrich’s ability to survive the intense media scrutiny that the frontrunner’s position brings, but the former speaker’s rise is a big break for Romney on one count. Since Gingrich was an advocate for a single payer mandate back in the 1990s — long before Romneycare went into law — it’s difficult to argue that he provides a more conservative alternative on the issue for Tea Partiers to embrace. Though health care will be a millstone around Romney’s neck throughout the primaries, Gingrich is no position to take advantage of it.
The Supreme Court’s willingness to rule on the constitutionality of the mandate could also be a break for Romney. If a conservative majority strikes it down, that will be the end of the issue and leave room in the general election for him to either avoid the matter or continue to point out that his plan was both legal and more in keeping with what Americans wanted. If it is validated by the Court, that may enrage conservatives, but it will make it even more imperative that a Republican president and Congress is elected in November as that will provide the only hope for repeal of the measure.
So long as his nomination as in doubt, Romney needs to avoid falling into the trap of attempting further explanations of his past on health care. Instead, he must wait for the Supreme Court to provide an escape hatch that will either remove the issue altogether from the national agenda or force conservatives to unite behind his pledge of an Obamacare repeal.