Mitt's "Problem" Redux
Back at the beginning of the year, I wrote a piece suggesting that putative 2012 Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney might have a hard time overcoming his sponsorship of a form of health care reform in Massachusetts that was impressively similar to that great socialist abomination, ObamaCare. This has now become a pretty common refrain in the early 2012 handicapping (viz. this Jonathan Martin-Ben Smith item in Politico yesterday), to the point where the estimable Marc Ambinder of The Atlantic posted a rebuttal to the Mitt-as-Toast hypothesis yesterday.
Ambinder made four reasonable points about Romney's potential viability regardless of RomneyCare. Let's consider them in order:
(1) RomneyCare may look more successful by 2012. I don't think the problem with RomneyCare is that it's unpopular or unsuccessful in MA; it's that it bears a lot of resemblence to ObamaCare, which is by definition, regardless of public opinion or objective reality, a horror to the kind of people who participate in Republican presidential primaries.
(2) Health care may not be a transcendent Republican issue by 2012 (just as the Iraq War began to recede once the 2008 Democratic contest reached its climax). Sure, other major issues of importance to Republican primary-goers may emerge, but until such time, if ever, health reform is repealed, there is virtually no chance that it will be forgotten by 2012 (and it can't be repealed before then unless Republicans win every single Senate race this year and also win two-thirds of the House). If the Iraq War is a suitable analogy, as Ambinder suggests, I think it's indisputable that Barack Obama would have never emerged as a viable presidential candidate in 2008 if Hillary Clinton hadn't voted for the war resolution and then refused to say she made a mistake by doing so. Other issues mattered, but that was the big threshold issue. (One of my fellow Mitt-o-skeptics, Jonathan Chait, did a response to Ambinder today that mainly focuses on his own belief that RomneyCare will actually be a bigger issue for Republicans in the future than it is today).
(3) The Republican nominating process is "hierarchical," and especially favorable to establishment figures like Romney. This is something you hear all the time, and it's valid in the very limited sense that the rules for awarding delegates in Republican contests don't demand strict proportionality, and thus help front-runners consolidate early victories. But in 2012, as in 2008, Mitt's problem could be getting out of the gate, not finishing off the field. Recall that in Iowa in 2008, he couldn't survive what was basically a one-on-one contest with Mike Huckabee, despite a vast financial advantage and endorsements from most of the local GOP establishment, and even though he was running as the "true conservative" in the race. None of Romney's problems from 2008 (a wooden speaking style, a history of flip-flops on cultural issues, his religion, his history as a corporate downsizer) have gone away, and it's very likely the Iowa Caucuses will be even more dominated by cultural conservatives than ever, given the huge importance of the gay marriage issue to conservatives in that state. Add in RomneyCare, and the odds look pretty bad; skipping Iowa like McCain did is a possibility, but would also give another candidate a good chance to become the early front-runner, going into two states (Michigan and New Hampshire) that Romney can't lose and still have a prayer for the nomination.
(4) Romney is just too reasonable and accomplished a candidate to get knocked out by one issue. Maybe so, but as noted above, he has more than one problem, and as it happens, "one issue"--in fact, one utterance--knocked Mitt's father, George, out of the 1968 presidential contest, and his resume was if anything stronger than his son's. If I were a Republican, I'd actually be worried that Mitt's sitting there soaking up attention, endorsements, and poll numbers that could go to some attractive darkhorse candidate, leaving the GOP with a very weak field if he does go belly-up. And you don't have to be a total Democratic partisan to observe that Republicans aren't disposed at the moment to be completely rational about their choice of candidates: a recent PPP survey suggested that nearly as many rank-and-file Republicans think it's more important to nominate a candidate who is "conservative on every issue" as those who think it's more important to nominate someone "who can beat Barack Obama."
In any event, with all due respect to Marc Ambinder (who may simply be playing devil's advocate), I'd say the burden of persuasion should be on those who think Mitt Romney's stronger than he was in 2008 than on those who think he's in very deep trouble thanks to RomneyCare.