Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Romney Agonistes

It's perhaps hard not to feel some sympathy for the situation Mitt Romney has found himself in. By the close of the 2008 Republican primary, he was seen as the standard-bearer of conservatism, picking up the support of the likes of Ann Coulter and Jim DeMint. Yet now, he finds himself attacked as a lefty RINO and utter traitor to the conservative cause---for Romneycare, a measure he backed in 2006. Romney's record as governor did not change from 2008 to 2011 (he stopped being governor in 2007), but the perception of the conservative commentariat has. Notoriously derided as a flip-flopper, Romney has now found that some in the right-leaning punditocracy have flip-flopped on him. And these attacks on Romney emphasize not merely how the partisan optics have changed since 2008, which they have, but often criticize his politics on a much deeper, ideological level.

The Massachusetts health-care law has become an albatross around the neck of the man who could maybe almost be the Republican front-runner. The passage of Obamacare made health-care reform a central litmus-test issue for grassroots conservatives. The fact that the Obama White House boasts of similarities between Romney's reforms and Obamacare is not going to endear Republicans to Romney.

From the perspective of free-market conservatism, the reforms Romney sponsored have not been a resounding success. The rate of health-care uninsurance in the Bay State has dropped significantly, which is good (over 98% of the Commonwealth has health insurance). Wait times have potentially increased a little, though trends for longer delays for receiving care were in place before Romneycare passed. But costs are exploding. Romney's Democratic successor, Deval Patrick, is now looking to create a regulatory infrastructure to control insurance rates (and thereby doctor pay) as a way of coping with these skyrocketing bills. With unchecked Democratic power in Massachusetts, further state control of health-care delivery may be only just around the corner. Unless further reforms are made, Romney's health-care reform may prove to be quite the shot in the arm for private health-care in Massachusetts: a lethal injection.

So Romney's big speech on Thursday may prove to be a necessary but also somewhat desperate gamble. Faced with the (perhaps unfair) public perception that he is an opportunist who will shift in whatever direction may benefit him the most, Romney seems to have decided that he cannot utterly repudiate the Massachusetts health-care law. The fact that he has spent so many years defending these reforms would give a repudiation now an especially high political price.

Either a total defense of Romneycare or a total repudiation of it could damage his image in the eyes of grassroots conservatives and potential swing voters. Successfully resolving the health-care issue could help scrape away some of the veneer of artificiality so many voters have doubts about while also burnishing his conservative bona fides. Here are some thoughts about what Romney might want to achieve politically in this address:

Make clear the distance from Obamacare: Romney may attack Obamacare as inefficient, destructive, problematic, and so forth, but he should particularly emphasize those features of it (such as the 50-state mandate) that differ from the Massachusetts reforms. Attacking Obamacare is bound to win applause from righties. But Romney's attacks will ring hollow if he has not posed enough plausible distance between his policies in Massachusetts and those of Obama.

Build on the strengths of Romneycare: There are some positive, free-market features of the Massachusetts health-care law, which the Heritage Foundation praised. Romney could tout those.

Show technical expertise: The ability to maneuver through complex bureaucracies will be key for any potential Republican administration. Romney has a wealth of experience in running large organizations and a considerable proficiency with the details of policy. His speech on Thursday can showcase those skills. This speech doesn't have to be---and probably shouldn't be---a total wonkfest, but a suggestion of Romney's wonky tendencies would play to his strengths as a credible, center-right technocrat.

Move the debate forward: This is perhaps the most important political objective for the speech. If Romneycare dominates his Republican primary narrative (including both his campaign and what is said about his campaign), Romney loses. Game over. In this speech, Romney needs to change the topic to present a forward-looking approach to federal health-care reform (which he looks likely to do). Romney knows that even the all-out repeal of Obamacare will not be enough for our nation's health-care system, which does need reform. Moreover, every serious Republican candidate is probably going to talk about repealing Obamacare. By focusing on a specific set of policies for a way forward, Romney can distinguish his candidacy from the rest of the pack. For his political survival, Romney must make this campaign about the future.

Moreover, the right does need creative ways of trying to reform the health-care system to make it more affordable and efficient. Such a tangled web of government/non-profit/for-profit institutions has been set up that any reform will have to be as careful as possible to avoid any drastic and unpleasant unintended consequences. By focusing on the future of health-care reform (both for the private market and for Medicare, Medicaid, and other government programs), Romney can keep the past from sucking all the air out of present debates.

This could be a pivotal speech for Romney. If Romney can prove his viability on the health-care issue, he could start to solidify a core of support. If he cannot resolve the public perception of his health-care policies, he may find himself limping along and find the path to the nomination that much harder. Moments of testing can make or break a candidacy, and this may be one such moment.

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