“It’s going to take a lot more than new rhetoric to put Americans back to work. It’s going to take a new president,” he said. “Let me make this very clear: If I were to decide to run for president, it sure wouldn’t take me two years to wake up to the jobs crisis threatening America. And I wouldn’t be asking [Treasury Secretary] Timothy Geithner how the economy works, or [former Obama adviser] Larry Summers how to start a business. I know.”
The cofounder of a celebrated private-investment firm, turnaround artist of the 2002 Winter Olympics, and one-term governor of Massachusetts didn’t need to explain. Romney’s extensive executive résumé holds up well next to Obama’s dearth of pre-White House experience. In the first presidential election since the Great Recession, it’s a good bet that Romney’s private-sector accomplishments will be a popular selling point.
But hovering over the presumptive Republican front-runner was an uncomfortable question: Would he mention health care?
As governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to ’07, Romney spearheaded groundbreaking legislation that requires most state residents to buy insurance. This individual mandate, aimed at balancing health care costs between the sick and the healthy, also sits at the heart of Obama’s federal law.
Romney “did some interesting things there on health care, you know,” former White House adviser David Axelrod told USA Today, in praise that is certain fodder for the GOP primary and was echoed by Obama this week. “We got some good ideas from him.”
“Obamacare” has become a rallying cry for Republicans nationwide, and at CPAC, it was public enemy No. 1. In a preview of the GOP primary race, speaker after speaker railed against the legislation and, implicitly, against Romney’s legacy in Massachusetts.
Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn.: “Repealing Obamacare is the driving motivation of my life.”
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty: “The individual mandate reflects completely backwards thinking. They, the bureaucrats, don’t tell us what to do. We, the people, tell the government what to do!”
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels: “The health care travesty now on the books will engulf private markets and produce a single-payer system or its equivalent, and it won’t take long to happen.”
If Romney wanted to tackle his health care problem head-on, CPAC was the place.
• Apologize. A number of CPAC activists said they would welcome a mea culpa from Romney. But expressing regret for his plan in Massachusetts would almost certainly rouse the flip-flopping ghosts of his 2008 campaign. The narrative of a shape-shifting politician willing to abandon his convictions could doom another White House bid. If Romney’s challenge in the broadest sense is to come across to voters as authentic, how can he run away from one of his signature accomplishments as governor?
“A case can be made that someone had to lead,” said veteran GOP strategist Sally Bradshaw, who helped steer Romney’s campaign in Florida in 2008. “You have to make difficult decisions that are not always politically popular. Sometimes, you have to own things. That’s one piece of the puzzle of the Romney candidacy.”
• Explain. This is the approach that Romney has tried so far, with little success. He argues that a state program differs from a one-size-fits-all federal mandate. He stands by his record in Massachusetts while calling for the repeal of the federal health care legislation. It can be a long-winded and, many Republicans say, unconvincing response that doesn’t come close to matching the thwack of a bumper sticker-sized Romneycare/Obamacare attack.
“If you’re explaining, you’re losing,” said Chris Chocola, president of the free enterprise-championing Club for Growth. “I don’t know if the health care issue is fatal for Romney, but he’s going to have to find a way to explain it that gives people more comfort.… The explanation he’s offered so far hasn’t been satisfactory, so the focus on his health care record continues to grow rather than diminish.”
• Ignore. This is the strategy that Romney ultimately chose at CPAC, and depending on your view of him, it either reinforced the perception that he’s a confident pacesetter staying above the fray or a weak front-runner unwilling to confront his biggest vulnerability directly. Once the race starts in earnest, he won’t have a choice. With a slew of candidates jockeying to be seen as the Romney alternative, his health insurance law will be a prime target. The first volley came last month from Huckabee, who not by coincidence was at the time promoting a new book called A Simple Government.
“It could be argued that if Romneycare was a patient, its prognosis would be dismal,” Huckabee writes. “If our goal in health care reform is better care at lower cost, then we should take a lesson from Romneycare, which shows that socialized medicine does not work.”