In numerous posts going back to 2009, I’ve suggested that a Romney nomination by the GOP is equivalent to unilateral disarmament due to the fact that one of our most potent weapons, Obamacare and its unpopular mandate, will be removed from campaign debate since Mitt and his cronies in Massachusetts essentially designed the plan. For example, I wrote this in January:
I’ve argued all along that one reason (of many) that Mitt Romney can’t beat Obama should he be the nominee is that he’ll be unable to draw a contrast between ObamaCare and RomneyCare since, for all intents and purposes, they’re the same plan. Indeed MIT’s Jonathan Gruber, who helped Mitt design RomneyCare before helping Obama design ObamaCare, said ObamaCare is RomneyCare with three zeros. In last night’s debate Rick Santorum pointed this out and, as usual, the Mittster fell back on his standard, yet ludicrous, states’ rights” defense of his government run health care plan: Federal politicians legally requiring private citizens to purchase a product they may not want is bad, but state politicians legally requiring private citizens to purchase a product they may not want is a great conservative idea. Or something. Just because the state allows one to do something stupid doesn’t mean one should.
In any event, my premise has been that Mitt will have zero credibility in going after Obama on this issue and thus, the GOP will leave one of the President’s biggest vulnerabilities on the table. Beating an incumbent President is difficult enough, but will be virtually impossible if we go into battle with one of our biggest weapons, ObamaCare, neutralized as an issue because we were insane enough to nominate the guy who designed the prototype for the system. Heading into an uphill electoral fight with one hand tied behind our back is hardly a recipe for success in November.
So now it’s July, and Republicans were indeed insane enough to hand Mandate Mitt the nomination. The Supreme Court just gave him a golden issue on a silver platter. But he can’t use it. This issue has been effectively eliminated as an issue for Team Mitt, as I predicted it would be, because he has no credibility in this area. And now, after yesterday’s tortured performance by Eric Fehrnstrom, his campaign has come to this realization. Via Josh Kraushaar at the National Journal:
In the aftermath of the Supreme Court health care ruling, the early conventional wisdom was that an unfavorable health care ruling at the court would be good for Republicans politically, even as it was a serious policy setback for conservatives. But that’s not shaping up to be the case. Mitt Romney, after giving a brief statement decrying the decision, has been virtually silent on criticizing the health care law. He’s been on vacation and his campaign has been giving off clear signals that it doesn’t want to make health care a major part of the election.
His senior adviser, Eric Fehrnstrom, went on MSNBC Monday and ended up agreeing with the Obama campaign’s spin that, even though the Supreme Court declared the individual mandate a tax, it really still is a penalty. Significantly, his campaign appears to want to take the most potent argument against the president on the health care subject off the table, likely out of fear the Romney himself is vulnerable when it comes to his health care record. He, after all, supported a mandate as governor of Massachusetts, and doesn’t want that to be considered a tax, either.
For an issue that’s supposedly potent against Democrats, Romney’s campaign is declaring a cease fire. This, even as the law polls unfavorably and it proved to be a motivating force for Republicans and disaffected independents in the 2010 midterms.
I know, I know: Romney promises to repeal it. Except for the good parts, that is.
Does that sound like a guy fully committed to repealing Obamacare to you? I remain skeptical for a couple of additional reasons, too. First, his decision to ignore the issue raises a huge question: If he somehow manages to win, how will he be able to claim an electoral mandate to repeal Obamacare if he refuses to engage Obama on the issue during the campaign? Second, let’s not forget that Romney hired a man to head his transition who stands to make a lot of money if Obamacare is implemented as is. Where will that leave all of us barbarians who’ll be forced to live with third world quality government health care for the rest of our lives?
Strategically, I don’t blame Romney for wanting to ignore Obamacare. As yesterday’s spectacle by Fehrnstrom makes clear, any time Team Mitt brings up Obamacare in general, or government mandates in particular, they can’t help but confirm Romney’s well-deserved reputation as an opportunistic flip-flopper. Lefty Joan Walsh, of all people, adroitly captured the Mittster’s dilemma today (even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while, I guess):
President Obama is rubber and Mitt Romney is glue: Virtually anything bad Romney says about health care reform bounces off his presidential rival and sticks to him.
Yes, the “I’m rubber, you’re glue” grade school taunt perfectly describes why Mitt can’t exploit the opening the Supreme Court gave him last Thursday. And since he’s the nominee, many Republicans in down-ballot races will have to tread lightly on the issue in order to avoid messaging problems. Fantastic.
Update: Stephen F. Hayes at the Weekly Standard further explores the enormous, yet entirely predictable, problem Team Mitt has on their hands, as well as the pathetic — yet hilarious — verbal contortions to which they’re resorting to explain how Mitt’s position is different from Obama’s when it really isn’t (emphasis mine):
The politics could have hardly been better: The Obama administration and other Democrats would not only have to defend an unpopular law, but they’d have to try explain that a mandate upheld because of the power of Congress to tax was not, in fact, a tax. Democrats tried unsuccessfully to make that case this weekend with White House chief of staff Jack Lew and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, among others, struggling to deflect the obvious implications of the Court’s decisions.
Those struggles may have ended yesterday morning when the Romney campaign announced that their candidate does not consider the mandate a tax. Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom appeared on MSNBC’s Daily Rundown with Chuck Todd, where he agreed with the host’s assertion that Romney “believes that you should not call the penalty a tax.”
Fehrnstrom explained: “The governor disagreed with the ruling of the Court. He agreed with the dissent written by Justice Scalia, which very clearly stated that the mandate is not a tax.” Later, Romney spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg confirmed that Romney doesn’t consider the mandate a tax, telling ABC News: “Governor Romney thinks it is an unconstitutional penalty.”
That’s an odd argument. It’s not only possible but also perfectly consistent to agree with the argument in Scalia’s dissent that the mandate should not have been considered a tax for the purposes of constitutionality, but to bow to the reality that the Roberts decision makes it so. Whatever the mandate was before the decision, and regardless of how strongly one disagrees with the ruling, it’s a tax now.
Why did Romney do it? Presumably because calling the Obamacare tax a tax would, by implication, mean that Romney’s mandate in Massachusetts could be similarly labeled. Romney has often boasted that he made his reforms “without raising taxes.” There are arguments he can make—federal taxing power versus police powers of states, for example—but Team Romney wants to avoid the issue altogether, preferring to give up an argument in 2012 to win one from 2005. Will general election voters care more about a bank-shot argument from Democrats that the Supreme Court ruling means Romney raised taxes seven years ago or about the Court’s decision having discredited President Obama’s claim that the mandate is not a tax and affirming Republican claims that it is one?
We’re doomed, folks. Why did conservatives allow the Republican Establishment to put us into this position? I need a drink.
Update II: Via the Financial Times, Eric Bolling suggests Fehrnstrom should take a vacation … until after the election:
Eric Bolling, a host on Fox, was equally exasperated, saying about Mr Fehrnstrom: “Do us all a favour – take a vacation, come back November 7 after the election, because it’s a tax.”
In March, Mr Fehrnstrom inadvertently underscored accusations that his candidate was a serial “flip-flopper” by saying that his candidate could pivot on policy issues in the lead-up to the November election like an “Etch-A-Sketch”.
Good advice, but not sufficient to make a difference. The real problem is the candidate, not his spokesman.