The New Campaign: Absurd Romney vs. Compelling Romney
It's almost like a tale of two presidential campaigns, and two Mitt Romneys. In one campaign, most things are going well for Romney and badly for Barack Obama. Hardly noticed amid the drama of the Supreme Court's decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act on Thursday was the news that the economy continued to grow at a tepid 1.9 percent. Job growth is equally slow. In fact, at 8.2 percent unemployment (still several points above what the rate was when Obama took office), it probably would mark a historic victory for any incumbent to win reelection in an economy beset by such grim numbers. And there is little doubt that Romney understands economics, even if you dispute his solutions. At Bain Capital--whatever else you might think of that firm--Romney was a data and numbers whiz who took a tiny start-up and turned it into a $4 billion giant. So in this campaign Romney is looking pretty good, and he has open running room to go straight at the president's central weakness.
This is Compelling Romney.
But now there is another presidential campaign, a reinvigorated one that is going to be mainly about repealing the ACA since the Supreme Court declined to overturn it. The initial reaction of many pundits is to say this gives Romney a fresh issue to rally his base. But these are no longer the primaries. In the general election it is on this issue that Romney looks weakest, indeed pretty silly. That is because, in effect, the Supreme Court has just handed Romney the greatest compliment, and the most dramatic vindication, of his political career: your successful health care law in Massachusetts is not only effective, it is constitutional. And yet now he is being forced to run away from this achievement as if it were a terrifying ghost from his past, which in the context of the Right's new Dogma, it is.
This is Absurd Romney.
As an example of the Orwellian doublethink in which presidential candidate Romney must now engage, he will be forced to repudiate, day after day on the trail, the policy-maker he so proudly proclaimed himself to be was only six years ago. And he must pretend, day after day, that he is really going to repeal "Obamacare" starting on day one of his presidency, or somehow issue "waivers" to all 50 states, when that will be close to practically impossible. How many voters will believe this pledge, except for the rabid Republican base? Probably not many. How many voters will buy the sincerity of his opposition to the law? Probably not even the Republican base.
Which brings us to Romney's central problem. He needs to persuade the rational middle of the country--where many voters are attracted to Compelling Romney but somewhat repelled by Absurd Romney -in order to win the presidency. Yet now the Supreme Court has ensured that Obamacare won't go away as an issue for the rest of the general election, and he has committed himself uncompromisingly to battling it. Again on Thursday, looking very presidential with the Capitol dome behind him, Romney pledged to "act to repeal Obamacare" as "bad policy." But measured against his record as governor his words sounded like something out of 1984, as they did during the primaa. Obama, in his remarks at the White House on Thursday, referred himself to this powerful political cudgel when he said that a requirement to purchase health care was supported "even by the current Republican nominee for president."
The difficulty of Absurd Romney's task is pointed up by Jonathan Gruber, an MIT economist who helped Romney design his 2006 health insurance program in Massachusetts, who says that the then-governor used reasoning and language very similar to that of Chief Justice John Roberts in arguing for the necessity of an individual mandate. While Roberts said that Congress did not have the right to mandate behavior, it did retain the right to "tax and spend," including penalizing people for not buying health care.
"It's a penalty for free riding on the system. That's the way Gov. Romney talked about it," says Gruber, who later became one of the key architects of President Obama's Affordable Care Act, which was modeled in part on the Romney law. "Justice Roberts used similar language today." Back in the 2000s, when Gruber demonstrated to Romney with computer models that, absent an individual mandate, one-third of Massachusetts' poorest and sickest would remain uninsured (and drive up costs for everyone), Romney jumped on the point, instantly converted, says Gruber. Romney went at the problem "like a management consultant or an engineer" with no ideological taint, even against the advice of his conservative political advisers, Gruber says. "They were concerned about the politics of universal health care. He argued them down."
Today, says Gruber, Romney is being "completely disingenuous" in arguing against a law whose principles he once embraced. And somewhat absurd. Gruber says Romney's suggestion that, as in Massachusetts when he was governor, states should be permitted to decide on their health care plans is also disingenuous. Massachusetts could only devise its health care law because it had access to a large amount of federal money, a $385 million Medicaid grant that it needed to use to extend care to the poor. "He says the states could do it but not the federal government. Well, actually the states can't do it [because most don't have that grant]," says Gruber. "What he should be saying is that he 'll give the states a trillion dollars to come up with their own plans, but he's not going to do that."http://decoded.nationaljournal.com/2012/06/the-new-campaign-absurd-romney.php